When Should You Worry About a Yeast Infection?

Yeast infections can be annoying, irritating, and itchy, but are they dangerous? Well, not usually. But sometimes, persistent yeast infections can signal other health problems and in very rare cases, can cause infections in other parts of the body.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 75 percent of women will get a yeast infection at some time in their lifetime, and nearly half will get more than one.  The medical name for yeast (a common fungus) is Candida. Most of the time, Candida is just part of the normal bacteria that lives in the vagina. When Candida grows in large quantities, however, it can disrupt other healthy bacteria and cause vaginitis (infection and inflammation of the vagina).  Yeast infections can happen in other dark, moist areas of the body, such as armpits. Some women get yeast infections after taking antibiotics because these medications can kill healthy bacteria that usually keep Candida in check. Pregnant women are vulnerable to developing yeast infections, and experts say that treatment with most yeast medications is safe.

The Symptoms

Most women know when they have a yeast infection because they have itching, burning, and redness both inside and outside of the vagina.  These symptoms are often accompanied by a cottage cheese-like discharge that doesn't have a foul odor. It's because yeast infections are so uncomfortable that most women get medical treatment long before infection can do any serious damage.  Untreated yeast infections can cause scarring or breakdown of delicate vaginal tissues, but most women seek treatment before the infection gets too serious.                 

If you've never had a yeast infection but suspect you might, it's best to see your health care provider for a diagnosis. Vaginal discharge with odor indicates some other type of infection that should be diagnosed and treated by a physician.  Improper diagnosis and treatment of vaginal infections that are not yeast infections can be dangerous.

The Treatments

Once you've had one yeast infection and know the symptoms it's usually safe to head to the store for an over-the-counter medication.  It comes in cream and suppository forms for use inside and outside the vagina.  Depending on the strength of the medication, treatment can last between a few days and a week. Medications used to treat yeast infections are not effective in treating other vaginal infections such as bacterial vaginosis or sexually transmitted diseases.

When Yeast Means Trouble

Women with compromised immune systems get more yeast infections than healthier women.  That's why frequent or persistent infections may signal other serious conditions  such as diabetes, leukemia, or HIV. Women with any chronic disease and those for whom over-the-counter medication is ineffective should see their physician for further evaluation and treatment.

In very rare instances, yeast can invade the mucous membranes of the vaginal tissue and bloodstream and infect internal organs.  This can be life threatening and requires medical treatment to avoid serious damage to vital organs.  In some ways, it's "fortunate" that yeast infections are uncomfortable because most women seek treatment long before the infection can cause serious harm.