Should you self-diagnose a yeast infection?
Vaginal itching, burning, irritation, and unusual or excessive discharge can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing. If you're having these symptoms, you might be tempted to try and treat the problem yourself rather than face a visit to your doctor.
But did you know that although a yeast infection may be the first thing that comes to mind, your symptoms might actually be caused by a different condition altogether? In fact, more than half of all women who think they have a yeast infection actually have a different condition, such as bacterial infections, sexually transmitted infections, chemical irritation, or allergies. Some of these conditions can lead to serious problems, including infertility, if they are not recognized and treated.
That's why it's so important to see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment, even if you think you have a yeast infection. Your doctor can ask you some questions and do some simple tests to determine the cause of the problem and make sure that you get the right treatment.
It's especially important to visit your doctor if you're having these symptoms for the first time, if you've already tried to treat your symptoms but it didn't work, or if you are having these symptoms frequently (at least 4 times in the last year, or at least once within 2 months from your last yeast infection). Plus, you should also see a doctor if:
- you are pregnant or breast-feeding
- you are younger than 12 years of age
- you think you might have a sexually transmitted infection (STI, also known by the older term STD)
- you also have fever, pelvic pain, or a coloured or unpleasant-smelling discharge
- you have certain health conditions (such as diabetes or a conditions that weaken the immune system)
It's better to be safe than sorry! If you have vaginal itching, burning, or unusual or excessive discharge, see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Many women who think they have a yeast infection may actually have another condition: bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV, which affects about 10% of women and up to 30% of pregnant women, is the most common cause of vaginal discharge in women. It occurs when certain bacteria in the vagina overgrow, leading to vaginal itching, burning, a white or grey discharge, and an unpleasant fishy odour. Some women with BV do not have any symptoms.
We don't know exactly how women get BV, but it's believed that something happens to upset the normal environment of the vagina. Normally, there is a balance between good and harmful bacteria in the vagina, and when something happens to decrease the number of good bacteria, the harmful bacteria can overgrow, leading to BV.
What increases a woman's chance of BV? Certain factors such as douching, and using an IUD (intrauterine device) for birth control, may increase the risk of BV. The role of sexual activity in transmitting BV is not clear, and it is not generally considered to be a sexually transmitted infection (STI, also known by the older term STD). However, having new sex partners or multiple sex partners can increase a woman's risk of BV, although it's not fully understood why.
BV can do more than just cause unpleasant symptoms. It can also increase a woman's risk of:
- becoming infected with HIV if she is exposed to the virus
- giving HIV to a sex partner (for women already infected with HIV)
- having a premature birth (for pregnant women with BV)
- having a baby with a low birth weight
- having an infection of the placenta during pregnancy
- having an infection of the womb after pregnancy
- getting a more serious infection, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, after having an IUD inserted, having a biopsy of your uterine lining, or having procedures to treat polyps, cancer, or unwanted bleeding
- becoming infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea
Your doctor will give you a physical exam and perform some lab tests to diagnose you with BV. BV can be treated with antibiotics. Although male sex partners don't need to be treated, the doctor may recommend treatment for female sex partners.
To reduce your risk of BV, avoid douching, and limit your number of sex partners. Since BV can increase your risk of other health problems, be sure to see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment if you notice symptoms of vaginal discharge, itching, burning, or discomfort.
BV can cause serious complications if it's not properly treated. Therefore, it's very important to visit your doctor for diagnosis and treatment when you have symptoms of vaginal discharge, itching, or irritation.
Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI, also known by the older term "sexutally transmitted disease," or STD) that causes some symptoms that are similar to a yeast infection. Some women who think they have a yeast infection may actually have trichomoniasis.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite that you can catch through unprotected sexual contact, which also includes vulva-to-vulva contact. Symptoms include vaginal irritation, itching and burning, and a smelly discharge from the vagina. The discharge is frothy and may be off-white or yellow-green in colour. Women with trichomoniasis may also have abdominal pain, pain during urination, discomfort during sex, or bleeding after sex.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Other conditions, such as yeast infections and bacterial infections, can cause some similar symptoms, and proper treatment depends on which condition you have. Your doctor can use a lab test and physical exam to diagnose trichomoniasis. You and your doctor may also consider testing for other STIs at this time.
If it is not properly treated, trichomoniasis can increase a woman's chance of HIV infection if she is exposed to HIV. If a woman is already infected with HIV, having untreated trichomoniasis makes her more likely to pass the virus on to her sex partners. If a woman has trichomoniasis during pregnancy, she's at a higher risk of having a premature baby or a baby with low birth weight.
The good news is that trichomoniasis can be successfully treated with antibiotics. It's important for all of your sex partners to be treated as well. This will cure them of the disease and prevent them from reinfecting you or others.
Using a condom and limiting your number of sex partners can help reduce your risk of trichomoniasis.
Because of the complications that trichomoniasis can cause if it's not properly treated, it's very important to see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment when you have vaginal discharge, itching, or irritation.
Chemicals, allergies, and vaginal irritation
Vaginal itching and irritation may be caused by an infection, but sometimes a different culprit is to blame: chemical irritation or allergies.
Chemicals in products such as scented soap, bubble bath, coloured toilet paper, douches, latex condoms, IUDs, diaphragms, spermicides, or feminine hygiene products (tampons and pads) can irritate the delicate tissues of the vagina, leading to itching and irritation.
Women may also become allergic to certain substances, such as sperm, dyes, soaps, birth control products (such as spermicides), and hygiene products. With allergies, the woman's immune system overreacts to these substances, leading to vaginal irritation, itching, and burning.
Management of chemical irritation or allergies involves finding out which chemical or substance is causing your symptoms so that you can avoid it. Your doctor can help you narrow down the cause and give you tips on how to cope until the reaction goes away. Your doctor will also help rule out other possible causes for your symptoms, such as infections, decreased estrogen levels due to menopause, or skin conditions.
Vaginal irritation and itching can also be caused by other conditions, and some of these conditions can cause serious complications if they are not properly diagnosed and treated. That's why it's important to see your doctor to find out the cause of your symptoms and get appropriate treatment, rather than trying to treat the problem yourself.