Itchy, Irritated Vagina? Sounds Like Symptoms of a Yeast Infection
If you've ever experienced itching or thick, white vaginal discharge, it may have been a yeast infection. A yeast infection is a common vaginal condition that affects many women and other people with a vagina, but a few conditions share those unpleasant symptoms.
Not sure how to know if it's a yeast infection or something else? Keep reading for a lowdown on the symptoms of yeast infections and how to tell a yeast infection from other vaginal health conditions.
What is a yeast infection?
Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of a fungus called Candida. In most cases, yeast infections are not dangerous or life-threatening. Although the symptoms of a yeast infection aren't always noticeable, they can be downright uncomfortable.
Sometimes the symptoms of a yeast infection can be so mild that you don't even notice them. Around 20 percent of women have Candida in their vaginal microbiome without it causing any problems. In other cases, yeast infections can cause severe pain or discomfort.
Some symptoms of a yeast infection can often be confused with those of other vaginal infections and even some sexually transmitted infections (STI), so knowing what's normal and what isn't for your body can help you spot any changes and determine if you're experiencing a yeast infection.
"People who have had yeast infections in the past often recognize the symptoms right away," said Kiarra King, M.D., an OB-GYN based in Illinois. "They may even have OTC meds readily available at home. However, to confirm a yeast infection, it's recommended to check in with your gynecologist for an evaluation as sometimes symptoms of a yeast infection can overlap with other forms of vaginitis.”
4 common symptoms of yeast infections
If you've never had a yeast infection before, you should always seek the advice of a healthcare professional.
Yeast infections can have different symptoms for different people. You may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
Unusual vaginal discharge
The trademark symptom of yeast infections is a change in the look and consistency of vaginal discharge. Healthy discharge can range from clear and thin to yellow and sticky. It can fluctuate depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle.
The key to identifying changes in your discharge is recognizing what your discharge looks like on a typical day. A yeast infection typically causes a white, clumpy discharge resembling cottage cheese or curdled milk. It's usually odorless.
If you notice a drastic change in your vaginal discharge, it's worth consulting your doctor or OB-GYN for peace of mind.
Another telltale symptom of yeast infections is an itchy or burning feeling around your vulva and vagina. Although this is one of the most noticeable yeast infection symptoms, it's also easy to confuse with other sexual health conditions.
Itching "down there" can also be caused by something innocuous like post-shave hair regrowth. If you start to feel itchy and it's accompanied by other yeast infection symptoms, don't hesitate to call your doctor.
In more severe cases, a yeast infection can also cause swelling, redness and small cracks in the skin around your vulva that feel like paper cuts (known as fissures).
Pain during sex
There are several reasons sex might be painful. The potential health conditions range from vaginismus to problems with sexual arousal, but yeast infections can also make penetrative vaginal intercourse uncomfortable.
If you have sex while you have a yeast infection, you might experience burning and stinging, which is undeniably a massive buzzkill when trying to get intimate with someone. It's better to wait until your infection has cleared up before having sex, or you risk spreading the infection to your partner.
Pain during sex, or dyspareunia, shouldn't be ignored. If you experience pain or discomfort during sex, contact your doctor or OB-GYN. There can be several causes, but it isn't something you have to live with.
A burning sensation when you pee
Burning or stinging when you go to the bathroom, medically known as dysuria, can be easily confused for a urinary tract infection (UTI), but also can be a sign of a yeast infection.
During a yeast infection, the vulva, or exterior genital area, may become swollen. When you urinate, it can lead to an uncomfortable burning sensation.
Peeing should never hurt or cause bodily discomfort. If you notice this symptom, see your doctor to figure out if it's a sign of a yeast infection or a different health condition.
Is it a yeast infection or something else?
Other vaginal and sexual health conditions can cause symptoms similar to those of a yeast infection.
"Keep in mind that many of the symptoms listed above overlap with symptoms of other vaginal infections, and people aren't so great at self-diagnosing yeast infections," said Krystal Thomas-White, Ph.D., of San Francisco, a senior scientist at Evvy, a vaginal healthcare platform.
"Studies show that up to 74 percent of people fail to self-diagnose a yeast infection correctly. So before you run to the pharmacy to get some over-the-counter relief, get a test to confirm that whatever irritation you're experiencing is actually a yeast infection and not something else," Thomas-White said.
Conditions often confused for a yeast infection can include:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV). Although BV is one of the most common vaginal infections, unlike yeast infections, it's caused by an overgrowth of bacteria, not fungi. The main symptom of BV is a strong, fishy or foul-smelling thin and grayish vaginal discharge.
- Vulvar dermatitis. This is an irritation of the skin around your vulva. It can cause redness, pain and itching.
- Vulvar lichen sclerosus. Although this isn't an infection, lichen sclerosus is a skin condition that can affect the vulva, causing dryness and itching.
- Sexually transmitted infections. Trichomoniasis, chlamydia and gonorrhea are a few of the infections capable of causing itching, painful sex, a burning sensation when you urinate, and abnormal vaginal discharge.
- UTIs. Infections such as cystitis can cause a burning sensation when you urinate. You may have abdominal cramps and fever and generally feel unwell.
- Vestibulitis. Sometimes referred to as localized vestibulodynia, this is an inflammation of the vaginal opening. It can cause stinging, burning and pain during sex.
- Cytolytic vaginosis (CV). This is caused by the overgrowth of "good" bacteria in your vagina, usually lactobacilli. Similar to a yeast infection, it can cause thick, white discharge and itching.
Yeast infections can lead to health complications such as oral thrush, fatigue and skin problems like cracking skin around your vaginal area. Whether your symptoms are a sign of a yeast infection or one of the above conditions, getting the correct diagnosis and treatment is crucial.
When to see a doctor
Contact a healthcare professional if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Fever, chills or both
- Nausea or vomiting
- A rash or breaking out in hives
- Lower abdominal pain
- Missed periods
- A frequent, urgent need to urinate or difficulty passing urine
You should also contact your doctor if you get a yeast infection while pregnant. For most people, yeast infections are nothing more than an uncomfortable nuisance, but pregnant people are at higher risk of experiencing complications if they develop and don't treat a yeast infection.
The bottom line
An untreated yeast infection can become life-threatening for anyone with a suppressed immune system. Vaginal yeast infections can mimic other, more severe health conditions. Don't dismiss your concerns. Speak with your healthcare professional if you suspect you have a yeast infection.
If you don't have a regular doctor, turn to Giddy Telehealth. The accessible online portal links you to hundreds of healthcare professionals with numerous specialties. Find a qualified doctor to help you get the care you need to live your best life.