Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of yeast, also known as candidiasis, in the vagina. Candida is the organism that causes a yeast infection.
Candida normally exists in the vagina in small amounts, but sometimes it can overgrow, which causes the symptoms of a yeast infection.
One common risk factor for getting a yeast infection is the type of birth control a woman is using. In this article, we look at why certain types of birth control increase the risk of a yeast infection, as well as treatment and prevention.
It is important to realize that using birth control does not cause a woman to get a yeast infection. Instead, it may change the environment of the vagina so that she is more likely to get one.
Hormonal birth control
Hormonal birth control contains either a combination of estrogen and progestin (a synthetic version of progesterone) or progestin alone. Taking these hormones can disrupt the body's natural hormonal balance and can help yeast to grow.
It is believed that the estrogen in birth control pills, patches, and rings can cause the vagina to produce more sugars. These sugars feed the yeast already living in the vagina, causing overgrowth.
Barrier birth control
Physical and barrier forms of contraception can also cause yeast overgrowth.
Spermicidal jellies and creams can alter the balance of bacteria living in the vagina, which make it easier for yeast to grow. Also, using jellies or creams can create a moist environment that allows candida to grow faster.
Vaginal sponges, diaphragms, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and other devices that sit in the vagina may also promote the risk for growth and infection.
In addition to a woman's birth control choices, there are other reasons why candida would overgrow:
- Certain antibiotics: Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria in the body, but they can also kill the healthy bacteria living in the vagina that help to maintain normal yeast levels.
- Uncontrolled blood sugar levels: Yeast tends to thrive in high-sugar environments, so a person with undiagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes is at higher risk.
- Poor immune system: Someone with a weak immune system may have difficulty controlling large amounts of bacteria or yeast.
- Pregnancy: Pregnancy causes a high-estrogen environment, in a similar way to someone who is taking high-estrogen birth control or hormone replacement therapy. This can increase the risk of a yeast infection.
- Sexual activity: Even though sexual activity does not cause a yeast infection, it can help to spread an infection between partners.
Most women are familiar with the symptoms of yeast infections; according to The National Women's Health Resource Center, nearly 75 percent of all women will experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetime.
Symptoms can include:
- vaginal itching and discomfort
- white vaginal discharge similar in consistency to cottage cheese
- burning around the vaginal opening
- pain or dryness during sex
- redness or swelling of the external vagina and vulva
These symptoms can sometimes resemble other vaginal infections, so it is important for a woman to see her doctor, especially if she has never had a yeast infection before. The doctor can confirm that it is not a more serious infection.
Most yeast infections are easily treated with over-the-counter medicines. Pills and anti-fungal creams are available in many different preparations, so it is important to follow the instructions on the packaging and speak with a pharmacist if necessary.
Clotrimazole and miconazole are usually very effective for a simple yeast infection.
Anyone with a yeast infection should abstain from sexual intercourse during treatment to prevent passing it to their partner.
Also, some medications for yeast infections can weaken forms of birth control, including latex condoms and diaphragms.
If over-the-counter treatments are ineffective or if a person has multiple yeast infections in a year, they should visit their doctor for an evaluation.
The doctor may suggest diagnostic testing to be sure that candida overgrowth is causing the symptoms.
Doctors may prescribe an oral medication called fluconazole (Diflucan) to help get rid of the infection. A doctor may also suggest a stronger or longer course of the topical medications, if necessary.
If a yeast infection is not causing the symptoms, a doctor can prescribe the appropriate treatment.
For recurrent yeast infections, the doctor may suggest a maintenance program. This may include a weekly dose of either oral or vaginal antifungal medications.
If the doctor suspects that a woman's birth control is contributing to her recurrent yeast infections, the doctor can prescribe an alternative type of birth control or help her find a better option.
Options may include a non-hormonal form of birth control or one with a lower dose of hormones.
In addition to changing the type of birth control, there are other things a woman can do to lower the risk of getting yeast infections. These include:
- wearing cotton underwear
- wearing loose-fitting pants, shorts, or skirts
- avoiding tight underwear or pantyhose
- keeping the vaginal area clean and dry
- changing out of wet workout clothing or swimsuits immediately
- avoiding hot tubs
- avoiding unnecessary antibiotics
- limiting sugar
- using natural soaps and laundry detergents
- avoiding regular use of panty liners unless necessary
- always wiping from front to back after using the bathroom
A woman who gets frequent yeast infections should keep a record of possible triggers, such as antibiotics or chemical soaps. If she can identify what is causing the symptoms, it can be easier to avoid it.
Most women will get a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their life. Certain forms of birth control can increase a woman's risk of getting a yeast infection or make it more likely that she will get recurrent infections.
If a woman or her doctor suspects her birth control is affecting her vaginal health, switching the brand or type of birth control can help to reduce the risk for further yeast infections.