Thrush is a yeast infection that can develop in several areas of the body. An oral yeast infection occurs when excess Candida fungus infects a person’s mouth and throat.

According to a 2015 article, doctors have known about yeast infections for over 2,000 years.

Oral yeast infections are more common now than they used to be.

Researchers believe this is due to the introduction of antibiotics, immunosuppressant drugs, and an increase in the number of people who have diabetes, AIDs, and other immunosuppressive conditions.

In this article, we will discuss the symptoms and causes of oral thrush, whether it is contagious, home and clinical treatments, and considerations for breastfeeding.

a doctor putting a wooden stick in a person's tongue to investigate oral thrush on the tongueShare on Pinterest
Oral thrush often manifests as white patches on the tongue.

There are many different symptoms of oral yeast infections.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these include:

  • white patches on the tongue, the roof of the mouth, throat, and inner cheeks
  • redness or soreness in the mouth
  • the mouth feeling like cotton
  • not being able to taste things
  • pain when eating or swallowing
  • cracking of the skin at the corners of the mouth

According to a 2020 article, a specific fungus called Candida causes oral yeast infections. The most common Candida fungus is Candida albicans.

However, other Candida fungus may cause this condition. Non-albicans Candida infections are more common in people who are over 80 years old than in younger people.

Candida is present in every person’s body. The fungus live in moist areas, such as the throat and vagina.

When a person is healthy, their immune system and other bacteria stop Candida from growing.

However, Candida fungus can grow if a person’s immune system stops working properly or medications or medical conditions alter the environment.

Oral yeast infections are not contagious in the traditional sense.

According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, most people have yeast in their mouths, but symptoms of oral thrush appear when it overgrows.

People can pass Candida to another person, but in most cases, it is harmless.

A person can treat oral thrush using the following methods:

Home remedies

There are multiple home remedies for oral yeast infections.

One of these remedies is gargling with mouthwash.

A 2016 study in Iran found that gargling with mouthwash for 60 seconds has an antifungal effect on the yeast infection. The researchers found that mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine were most effective.

Taking probiotics is another home remedy that may help.

Probiotics contain live microorganisms that may help fight Candida infections.

A 2019 study found that probiotics reduce the amount of Candida present in the mouth.

The study also suggests that probiotics may have a role in preventing further yeast infections.

Other home remedies include:

  • grapefruit seed extract
  • garlic
  • topical tea tree oil
  • cinnamon, ginger, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, propolis, and thyme oil
  • xylitol, found in chewing gum and mouthwash

Medical treatment

According to a 2015 article, the most common remedy for oral yeast infections are antifungal medications.

There is a variety of topical antifungal medications that a person can apply directly to the skin, as well as systemic forms.

Doctors often recommend topical antifungals for people who do not have any immunocompromising conditions.

One of the most common topical antifungals are polyenes, which attack the fungal cells and kill them.

According to an article in Frontiers in Medicine, people may need to use topical antifungals for 4 weeks. If a person experiences a recurring oral yeast infection, a doctor may recommend using medication for up to 6 weeks.

Doctors may recommend systemic antifungals for people who have conditions that affect the immune system, such as HIV or diabetes.

One of the most common systemic antifungal medication is azoles, which people take orally.

However, taking azoles medication carries some risks, such as leading to resistant strains of Candida. Doctors may recommend intravenous medication if oral medication is unsuitable.

Many babies up to 2 years old get oral thrush. Typically, it is not a cause for concern.

Symptoms can include white or cream patches in the mouth and on the tongue.

Other symptoms include:

  • a white sheen to the saliva
  • refusing to feed at the breast or fussiness
  • clicking sounds when feeding
  • poor weight gain

Typically, oral thrush will clear up by itself within a few days. However, if symptoms are persistent, a parent or caregiver should speak to their healthcare provider. They may be able to provide antifungal gels or drops.

According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, it is possible to contract thrush when breastfeeding.

When a person has cracked or damaged nipples, they may be at risk of developing a candida fungus. The fungus can travel from the breast to the baby, causing a yeast infection.

People who breastfeed or infants who are taking antibiotics are more at risk of developing a yeast infection.

Some signs of a yeast infection in the breasts include:

  • new pain in both nipples or breasts after breastfeeding
  • severe pain that lasts up to an hour after each feed

A person can take medication to treat the infection and continue to breastfeed.

Many factors may increase a person’s risk of developing an oral yeast infection.

These include:

  • salivary gland dysfunction
  • having dentures
  • using topical medications, such as inhaling corticosteroids
  • smoking
  • diets rich in refined sugars, carbohydrates, and dairy products
  • malnutrition (not consuming as much as the body needs)
  • prolonged use of drugs, such as antibiotics and immunosuppressants
  • having diabetes and Cushing’s syndrome
  • having HIV or AIDS
  • undergoing cancer treatments

According to a 2020 article, healthy people who do not have immunocompromising conditions do not tend to develop complications.

However, an oral yeast infection may spread to the pharynx, a part of the throat behind the mouth and nose.

The infection spreading to the esophagus is more common in those who have HIV or AIDS.

This may lead to difficulty swallowing and breathing.

According to the 2015 article, a person can help prevent oral yeast infections by practicing good oral hygiene. This includes brushing and flossing the teeth twice a day.

It is also important to use an antifungal and antibacterial mouthwash and rinses.

People who use inhaled corticosteroid treatments can reduce the risk of developing an oral yeast infection by rinsing their mouth with water or mouthwash after each use.

People with dentures can remove their dentures overnight and soak them in chlorhexidine solution or white vinegar. This removes the fungus from the dentures.

Prevention for infants

Caregivers and medical practitioners of infants should try to prevent oral yeast infections by:

  • avoiding third-generation antibiotics
  • avoiding long-term use of antibiotics
  • following good hand hygiene
  • sterilizing all pacifiers
  • sterilizing bottles and feeding equipment
  • giving the infant a drink of sterilized water to rinse away leftover milk
  • washing nipples and drying thoroughly between feeds

To diagnose oral thrush, a doctor will examine the physical symptoms.

They may also ask about certain risk factors and scrape off any plaque on the tongue. Sometimes, the tongue will bleed.

Doctors may send the scraped plaque off for tests.

A doctor may also check for conditions such as HIV, malnutrition, and diabetes, as these conditions may change the medication doctors prescribe.

A person should see a doctor if they develop any symptoms of an oral yeast infection.

If a person uses home remedies, it is important to tell a doctor during the initial examination.

Anyone experiencing trouble breathing must seek immediate medical help.

Oral yeast infections occur due to an overgrowth of the Candida fungus that lives in the throat and mouth.

People of all ages can develop this condition.

People who breastfeed can contract a yeast infection on their breasts and transmit this infection to their infant. A person can use medication to treat the thrush, and there is no need to stop breastfeeding.

There is a range of home remedies available for treating an oral yeast infection. However, anybody experiencing symptoms should see a doctor before trying home remedies.

Doctors will be able to diagnose the infection and prescribe the most suitable treatment.