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Nearly 75 percent of all women will have at least one such infection in their lifetime. Many are plagued by recurring yeast infections, which are most frequent between the ages of 16 and 35. Yeast is a term for single-celled fungi. The technical name for the variety of fungus often present in the human body is candida, and the technical name for infections caused by these fungi is candidiasis. Such infections occur not only in the vagina, but also in other parts of the body in both sexes.

A woman who has had one vaginal yeast infection can usually recognize its symptoms if it recurs. And a woman who has had several infections has no doubt about what's wrong when the next yeast infection starts. Another symptom is a thick, mostly odorless discharge. But this can be misleading because discharge in and of itself is not diagnostic. If you have a white discharge with an intense irritating itch, you may have an infection. Unfortunately, many women will, in response to increased estrogen at mid-cycle and the increased production of cervical mucus, develop a white, curdy discharge. That is not a yeast infection.

While not all women experience the following symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection, it's possible to have vaginal soreness or irritation, a rash on the vulva around the vagina, pain or discomfort during intercourse, abdominal pain, soreness of the vulva or vagina, burning during urination, and even vaginal bleeding in some cases in addition to itching and discharge.

Causes of Yeast Infection

Candidiasis is caused by one of four varieties of candida: Candida albicans, Candida glabrata, Candida tropicalis, and Candida krusei. By far the most common--causing nearly 80 percent of vaginal yeast infections--is Candida albicans.

Most people have these organisms in the genital or intestinal tract to some degree at various times. It's the overgrowth of the fungus that causes problems.

There are a number of causes of the uncontrolled growth, usually related to some type of immune suppression. Sometimes there's been a significant change in diet. Other times, it's due to use of antibiotics to treat another infection, such as strep throat or acne.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics, such as penicillin or tetracycline, can kill or suppress helpful bacteria in the genital tract, allowing yeast to grow unchecked. It's even possible that an underlying disorder, like diabetes, is the root cause of the infection. Whenever you see a fungal infection in a woman, these are the things that come immediately to mind.

When physicians see recurrent yeast infections without another cause, they have to wonder about HIV disease. Because HIV (the virus that leads to AIDS) involves a lowering of the immune system, it could significantly impair a woman's ability to combat yeast. Yeast infections can be passed back and forth between partners in unprotected intercourse, but because yeast is frequently present anyway, a sexual partner is more likely to pick up the infection if his or her immune system is also depressed.

Immunity can become depressed by a number of factors besides HIV infection. Illness or infection of any kind weakens the immune system. Physical or mental stress can also wreak havoc, leaving the immune system less able to combat yeast infections. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and taking any medication, including birth control pills, can upset the body's balance, allowing yeast to thrive. Pregnant women also have a tendency to have more yeast infections as the immune system becomes temporarily altered by hormonal surges.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing vaginal yeast infections can be tricky, especially at first. Several other disorders, including inflammation of the cervix or sexually transmitted diseases such as trichomoniasis (a parasitic infection) or herpes, can have similar symptoms. Clinical diagnosis of yeast infections starts with a slide of vaginal secretions examined under the microscope. Those slides can be very specific. If you see the yeast organisms, you can assume that's the diagnosis.

Slides are actually examined for a particular stage of the fungus form called mycelia. While yeast is a commonly present form of fungus, mycelia is the variation of the fungus type that can grow out of control and cause infection problems. It's possible to have a yeast infection that doesn't show up in the limited examination of a single slide smear. If a woman has a negative slide smear but still has significant symptoms, her physician is likely to order a culture. For example, there is one variety of candida--Candida glabrata--that causes symptoms but does not characteristically show up under the microscope. For that, a culture may be necessary.

A culture is more sensitive. It should pick up virtually anything. While studies have shown that women are able to correctly identify recurring vaginal yeast infections most of the time, there is still some concern about misdiagnosing and mistreating other problems that may mimic symptoms. Through package and product labeling of products sold without prescription, FDA and pharmaceutical companies are working to make sure that women with an infection that differs even slightly from the symptoms of a previous yeast infection return to their doctors.