Recurrent yeast infections can be super frustrating. No matter what you do, they just keep coming back. You know you have a yeast infection if your vagina is constantly burning, itching, and releasing a thick, white, odorless discharge. But having chronic yeast infections is even worse—that’s when your vagina decides to be a real jerk and gives you four or more yeast infections a year, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you get yeast infections this often, you probably know the drill. At the first sign of yet another one, you may hightail it to your local drugstore, cruise through that aisle, and search for a yeast infection treatment that will make your symptoms disappear ASAP. But before you just accept a lifetime of creams and suppositories, you should know that it doesn’t have to be like this. Keep reading to learn why you may be dealing with recurrent yeast infections, plus how to get some much-needed relief.
First, you need to understand what a yeast infection is.
A yeast infection happens when a fungus called Candida albicans overgrows in your vagina and causes severe itchiness, irritation, and discharge, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is the type of fungus that most commonly causes yeast infections, per the Mayo Clinic.
Before you get grossed out, remember that it’s totally natural to have some Candida albicans in your vagina! Lactobacillus bacteria produces acid to prevent an overgrowth of this yeast and generally help keep your vagina happy and healthy. It’s only when this yeast grows too much that you can begin to have an issue.
What causes yeast infections?
If something disrupts the balance of your vagina’s pH, yeast can get out of control and cause an infection, Sherry A. Ross, M.D., a women’s health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., tells SELF.
There are a few things that can disrupt that balance and cause a yeast infection, including:
- Antibiotics: Antibiotic use is a huge one, since it can kill the healthy bacteria in your vagina that helps to ward off infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Scented products: In some cases, a new soap or laundry detergent with fragrance can set you up for a yeast infection by disrupting your natural pH balance. For similar reasons, you should keep douches of all forms away from your vagina: Trying to “clean” inside of yourself can promote pH disruption and is seriously unnecessary.
- Hanging around in damp clothes: Wearing sweaty gym clothes or a wet bathing suit for too long can also contribute to yeast infections. Yeast loves warm, moist environments, and your workout gear or a wet bathing suit can trap heat and sweat, allowing yeast to flourish, Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells SELF.
- High estrogen levels: Having elevated estrogen levels due to pregnancy, taking high-estrogen birth control pills, or using estrogen hormone therapy can increase your risk of yeast infections. Excess estrogen can promote higher levels of glycogen (a stored form of glucose, also known as sugar) in the vagina. Yeast love sugar, Dr. Greves explains, which is extremely relatable and also why people with diabetes who have trouble controlling their blood sugar levels are often at a higher risk of getting yeast infections.
- Having sex: Unfortunately, having sex can also promote yeast infections, although yeast infections aren’t considered a sexually transmitted infection, the Mayo Clinic notes.
- A weak immune system: Having lowered immunity makes you more susceptible to getting yeast infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you’re getting recurrent yeast infections, it could be that yours is being caused by a different type of fungus (instead of Candida albicans). In that case, your doctor would take a sample of your vaginal fluid and get it tested to figure out which fungus is to blame for your yeast infections, according to the Mayo Clinic. IDing the fungus is critical because it can help them prescribe more effective treatment so you can kick your recurrent yeast infections for good.