Yeast can be found in the skin and near mucous membranes and helps to keep neighboring bacteria in check. A buildup of yeast is called a yeast infection and can cause pain, itchiness, and discomfort.
In this article, we explore the causes, symptoms, and possible treatments for yeast infections.
Most yeast infections are caused by the Candida fungus.
Yeast thrives in warm moist areas so yeast infections can occur in several places:
- the mouth
- the genitals
- beneath the breasts
- under folds of skin
Out of these, vaginal yeast infections are the most common.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 75 percent of women will have had a vaginal yeast infection at least once in their lives.
How diabetes and yeast infections are linked
People with poorly-controlled diabetes are at a higher risk of more severe and frequent yeast infections.
Researchers are still trying to understand completely how diabetes is linked to yeast overgrowth. However, there is evidence of several possibilities:
Extra sugars in yeast-friendly areas
When blood glucose levels are high, extra sugars may be secreted in:
As yeast feeds on sugar, these secretions are the most obvious culprits for overgrowth.
Increased levels of glycogen, a polysaccharide used to store glucose, also occur with diabetes. Extra glycogen in the vaginal area can lead to a decrease in pH, which aids yeast growth.
A study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology provides evidence for this, using female diabetic rats.
Compromised immune system
Poorly-controlled diabetes has been shown to hinder the immune response. This could be part of the reason why someone with diabetes might have difficulty fighting off yeast infections.
The exact link between diabetes and the immune system is still being investigated. However, a 2015 study revealed that hyperglycemia could lead to the suppression of immune proteins. These proteins are called beta-defensins, which help immune cells move towards infections and kill microbes.
With these functions blocked, a yeast infection that could be averted easily in a healthy person might thrive in someone with uncontrolled diabetes.
Once the yeast has colonized an area, it is easier for an infection to return. As such, someone who is susceptible to yeast infection, due to poorly-controlled diabetes, will also be at a higher risk of recurring problems.
Diabetes can also make it easier for yeast and other pathogens to cling to skin cells and mucous glands. This may be because of the presence of extra sugars, which allows yeast to colonize at unhealthy levels.
An appointment to see a healthcare professional should be booked if a woman shows signs of a vaginal yeast infection.
Yeast infections may manifest in a variety of ways in different parts of the body.
A skin infection might cause slight discoloration or an itchy, scaly rash. In men, a genital yeast infection might result in an itchy rash on the penis.
While male genital yeast infections are much less common than vaginal yeast infections, men with poorly controlled diabetes are at a higher risk.
There are several common signs of a vaginal yeast infection. Women should consult a doctor if they notice:
- vaginal itching, burning, or pain
- a cottage-cheese-like discharge
- burning or pain while urinating
- unpleasant odor
Even if a person's symptoms seem to match those of a yeast infection, it is important to visit a doctor rather than self-diagnosing. This is because yeast infections share symptoms with urinary tract infections and certain sexually transmitted infections. These things are more serious than a yeast infection and require different treatment.
To diagnose a vaginal yeast infection, a doctor will most likely take a vaginal secretion sample.
This sample is examined under a microscope to determine whether it contains an abnormal amount of Candida fungus, the type of yeast most often involved in infections.
A doctor may also take a urine sample to test for other infections.
If a doctor determines that someone's symptoms are due to a yeast infection, there are several ways it may be treated.
Antifungal creams or suppositories
A doctor will usually try these first, as they work well if a yeast infection is in its early stages.
Most antifungal creams can be applied to the affected area for up to 7 days, depending on a doctor's advice. Antifungal creams and suppositories are available over the counter, but it is important to consult a doctor before using them. This is for two reasons.
Firstly, the person may be dealing with something other than a yeast infection. Secondly, if these medications are used too frequently, yeast can become resistant to them.
Oral antifungal medication
If a cream or suppository does not work, or if one has experienced several yeast infections in a short time, a doctor might prescribe an oral antifungal medication.
A common medication prescribed is fluconazole, or Diflucan. One dose of fluconazole is often enough to cure an infection.
Home and natural remedies
There are ways people can treat a yeast infection at home. These include using:
- over-the-counter creams
- boric acid
- oil of oregano
- coconut oil
- tea tree oil
While some find these remedies helpful, if they do not clear the infection it is important to try another option or to speak to a doctor.
Outlook and prevention
Yeast infections are very treatable, even in individuals with diabetes.
According to the CDC, a short-course of oral antifungal medication works in 80-90 percent of cases. If an infection is not cured this way, it can usually be tackled with a longer course of therapy.
However, it is still important to seek care for a yeast infection, as early as possible. If untreated, a yeast infection will persist and become more uncomfortable. There is also a chance that a genital yeast infection may be passed between sexual partners.
Simple steps to prevent an infection may include avoiding scented tampons and pads.
Once a yeast infection has been treated, there are simple steps that can be taken to prevent future infections:
- Choose cotton underwear and breathable fabrics, and avoid tight-fitting pants.
- Avoid scented soaps, douches, and scented tampons and pads. These products can alter vaginal pH, upsetting the natural balance of yeast and bacteria.
- Be sure to dry well after bathing, and keep genitals and skin folds clean and dry throughout the day.
- Eat yogurt, or try probiotic supplements.
Though the effectiveness of this last approach needs more evidence, the United States Office of Women's Health suggest that eating 8 ounces a day of yogurt, containing live probiotic cultures, or taking Lactobacillus acidophilus probiotic capsules, might help to prevent yeast infections. Saccharomyces boulardii is another probiotic strain that has been shown to combat yeast overgrowth.
Aside from this, the most important preventative measure for people with diabetes is to achieve better blood glucose control.
With the help of their doctor, people may come up with a plan to have lower, more stable blood glucose levels. This might involve changing their diet, adding an exercise routine, or adjusting their insulin or medication regimen.
Avoiding hyperglycemia is not just important for preventing yeast infections. It is also beneficial to the following:
- cardiovascular health
- nervous system function
- skeletomuscular health
- overall well-being