When it comes to vaginal health, anything that seems different can cause alarm. If you experience an itchy, irritated, and sore vagina and have thick white discharge, take a deep breath. You likely have a vaginal yeast infection.
You’re not alone. Vaginal yeast infections are a widespread women’s health issue. After bacterial infections (also called bacterial vaginosis), they are the most common vaginal infection in the United States. Nearly 1.4 million American women seek medical advice for a yeast infection every year.
While in some cases you need to see a doctor for help, if your symptoms are mild, a range of natural remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, and other medications may help you find relief. Read on to learn more about how to treat your symptoms safely and quickly to keep your vagina balanced and comfortable over the long term.
What Is a Yeast Infection?
Vaginal yeast infections (also called vaginal candidiasis or vulvovaginal candidiasis) are painful, itchy, uncomfortable infections caused by an overgrowth of a fungus, most often candida albicans.
Under normal conditions, candida albicans is found in small amounts inside the vagina. It is kept in check by the vagina’s natural acidity, other vaginal microorganisms like beneficial bacteria, and a healthy immune system.
A healthy vagina has an acidic pH between 3.8 to 4.5. It contains a multitude of healthy bacteria and other microflora, including small quantities of naturally occurring fungi. A healthy vagina is also lubricated; it secretes small amounts of vaginal discharge (ranging from transparent to milky white depending on where you are in your hormonal cycle) to shed cells and defend against invaders.
Sometimes though, when a woman goes through a significant hormonal change or has a weakened immune system, her vaginal environment becomes less acidic and the fungi proliferate into a yeast infection. Women are more prone to developing yeast infection when they are:
- Using hormonal contraceptives
- Taking antibiotics
- Living with diabetes
- Living with HIV or other medical conditions that suppress the immune system
Symptoms and Causes
When the vaginal environment’s pH balance shifts, fungi can begin to increase, causing an infection. The sensitive tissues in the vaginal walls and vulva become irritated, and the affected area may become inflamed and swollen. Other symptoms of a yeast infection include:
- Pain or discomfort during sexual intercourse
- Intense itch or soreness in and around the vagina
- White vaginal discharge with a watery or chunky texture
If your yeast infection has spread into your urinary tract, you may also experience pain while urinating. If you believe you have a urinary tract infection (UTI) because of or in addition to a yeast infection, talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Home Remedies for Yeast Infection
Mild yeast infections often clear up in a few days. More severe or recurrent yeast infections can take up to two weeks to heal completely. If you are experiencing yeast infection symptoms for more than three days, talk to a healthcare provider. Also see a doctor if you are pregnant, have chronic yeast infections, have symptoms related to an STD, or are unsure if you have a yeast infection.
On the other hand, if you have mild symptoms and want some relief, certain home remedies may help. Here’s a breakdown of what may help and what doesn’t seem to work.
Coconut oil is known to have antifungal and antimicrobial properties. In one cell study, it appeared to kill candida albicans when taken orally. More research is necessary to confirm this benefit, so talk to a doctor before you try using coconut oil.
Boric acid has antifungal and antiviral properties and can be used to make homemade vaginal suppositories. It seems to help, particularly in cases when other traditional treatments have failed. One word of caution: Boric acid is toxic to a fetus, so pregnant women should avoid it.
Apple cider vinegar
Researchers do not consider apple cider vinegar a reliable treatment for a yeast infection. You should never douche with any vinegar. This can irritate the skin and can aggravate symptoms. There’s also no evidence that adding a cup of apple cider vinegar to a bath will help rebalance vaginal pH.
Early research suggests that taking a probiotic supplement may re-introduce helpful bacteria like lactobacillus acidophilus into your body. And some women’s health experts believe these supplements help re-establish a more balanced vaginal pH. The science is inconclusive, though, so if you want relief quickly, seek a proven treatment instead.
Eating yogurt with live cultures may support immune health. However, it’s unclear if this means that consuming yogurt can fight or treat yeast infections. Either way, never smear yogurt on your vagina. Most yogurts contain sugar, which feeds fungi and can make yeast infection symptoms worse.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is an essential oil that has antibacterial and antifungal properties. People have used it to treat wounds and other ailments for centuries. Some studies have shown that it may be an effective topical treatment against yeast infections—when used in tandem with traditional OTC medications like fluconazole. Another essential oil, oregano oil (origanum oil), has been found in cell studies to have antimicrobial properties.
However, both of these oils require more study before researchers can recommend them as an effective treatment. If you try it anyway, never drink tea tree oil. It can be toxic when ingested orally.
Garlic can be taken orally as a homeopathic yeast infection treatment. Always consult with your doctor to understand exactly how much garlic to take.
Although some tout garlic as a cure for all kinds of medical conditions, do not use cloves as vaginal suppositories to treat a yeast infection. There is little evidence that the practice does anything beneficial, and you may end up burning your vagina or making your condition worse.
Adding 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of baking soda to bathwater may help relieve some of the symptoms of an active yeast infection. Baking soda is known anecdotally to help to calm itch and soothe other ailments like athlete’s foot, poison ivy, and hives. One study showed that it may kill candida albicans too, but that’s not enough evidence to confirm it helps. Be sure to follow up with your doctor before using baking soda as a treatment.
Douching with hydrogen peroxide might seem like a good idea—after all, it is famously antiseptic and used to clean open wounds of invasive microbes all of the time. Unfortunately, treating your vagina with hydrogen peroxide can throw off its pH balance even further, exacerbating a yeast infection.
People often use salt water to treat fungal infections like athlete’s foot and oral thrush. Some suggest adding salt to bathwater as a gentle way to kill candida albicans, but more research is necessary to show this works.
Other Treatment Options
If you have a vaginal yeast infection and want to get rid of your symptoms quickly, an OTC antifungal medication or prescription treatment may be the best option for you.
- Over-the-counter medications: A wide range of OTC antifungal vaginal suppositories and lotions use tioconazole to treat yeast infections over one-, three-, and seven-day regimens. Patients insert the suppositories at bedtime and use a cream throughout the day to alleviate irritation and itch.
- Prescription lotions: Two topical creams are available by prescription to fight yeast infections in people with severe symptoms. Butoconazole is a single-dose treatment, while patients use terconazole over a three- or seven-day period.
- Prescription oral medication: Fluconazole (Diflucan) is a prescription oral tablet that effectively treats yeast infection. It may be taken only once or once a day for a few days. It comes with a risk of more side effects than creams and suppositories, but these effects are generally mild: headache, stomach ache, and rash.
When to See a Doctor
Yeast infections are not the only ailment that can affect your vaginal health. If you’ve never experienced a yeast infection before, are pregnant, or your symptoms are severe or prolonged, make an appointment with a gynecologist for medical advice and a proper diagnosis. It’s important to rule out other bacterial or sexually transmitted infections (STDs) that may be causing your symptoms.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Authenticating Apple Cider Vinegar's Home Remedy Claims: Antibacterial, Antifungal, Antiviral Properties and Cytotoxicity Aspect. (2019). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29224370/
Boric Acid for Recurrent Vulvovaginal Candidiasis: The Clinical Evidence. (2011). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21774671/
Does Your Vagina Really Need a Probiotic? (2019). https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/does-your-vagina-really-need-a-probiotic
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