Yeast infections. They’re so common, yet they’re such a (literal) pain.
While most healthy vaginas have yeast, an infection can occur when too much of a particular type of yeast — known as Candida — grows in the vaginal area. About 75% of all women are likely to have at least one yeast infection in their lifetime, with up to 45% experiencing two or more. Yeast infections are also the second-most common type of vaginal infections (after bacterial vaginal infections). Symptoms can include vaginal itching or soreness, pain during sexual intercourse, pain or discomfort while urinating, and thick, white vaginal discharge.
There are several potential causes that can throw your vaginal chemistry off-balance, thus causing a yeast infection. Those who are at an increased risk include people who are pregnant, taking antibiotics, diabetic, or immunocompromised. But in some cases, a yeast infection can happen from sexual contact. Your body chemistry can have an adverse reaction to another person’s natural genital yeast and bacteria. Fun, right?
Sometimes, however, yeast infections are just the result of normal hormone fluctuations, commonly showing up right before your period.
So, why exactly do yeast infections tend to occur before we get our period? And what can we do to treat them, or prevent them from happening in the first place? Rescripted spoke with Cordelia Nwankwo, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN based in Washington, D.C., to help us better understand and tackle these pesky infections.
Why are yeast infections so common before your period?
“The natural fluctuations of your hormone levels with your menstrual cycle can make you more susceptible to overgrowth of yeast in the week or so leading up to your period,” explains Dr. Nwankwo.
In short, blame the good ol’ luteal phase, and the drop in estrogen and progesterone that comes with it: As if PMS wasn’t enough, yeast infections before your period are not only more common, but they’re also more uncomfortable. Dr. Nwankwo cites the luteal-phase hormonal changes as a reason why “your vaginal tissue can be more sensitive.” This “can make the irritation and inflammation that occurs with a yeast infection more pronounced.”
Although Dr. Nwankwo says a yeast infection shouldn’t affect menstruation, “it may make you feel a bit more irritated during your period, especially if you’re using tampons.” So you may want to switch to maxi pads until the infection has cleared up.
How to treat a yeast infection
Yeast infection treatment — no matter when you get it during your cycle — is pretty straightforward: Dr. Nwankwo recommends an over-the-counter antifungal medicated cream (yep, yeast is a type of fungus), such as Clotrimazole. She also says that “longer treatment durations tend to work better,” so speak to your physician if you’re not sure how long you should continue treatment.
Do I need to call my doctor?
“If you’ve had a yeast infection before and recognize the symptoms, mild infections can be treated with over-the-counter remedies,” says Dr. Nwankwo. But, if the over-the-counter treatment doesn’t appear to resolve your symptoms, or “if you have recurring yeast infections,” Dr. Nwankwo advises contacting your doctor, who can provide “either a prescription antifungal cream or oral treatment.”
How to prevent a yeast infection
Give your vaginal area plenty of TLC! This means “avoiding tight clothing or underwear, avoiding products containing irritants, and avoiding douching,” says Dr. Nwankwo. Potential irritants include scented tampons and pads, perfumed bath soap or bubble bath, scented laundry products, and scented/colored toilet paper. These products may smell good in the short term, but they could wreak havoc on your genitals. The same goes for douching: Douching flushes away all the good, healthy microbes and can mess with the vagina’s natural pH balance. Stick to mild, unscented soap and water when bathing, and make sure to dry your vulva afterward.
Plus, it’s a good rule of thumb to not sit around in wet clothes or bathing suits, as yeast thrives in moist conditions.
Dr. Nwankwo also recommends taking a probiotic before your period as a possible prevention tactic.
Are yeast infections super-annoying? Of course they are, especially those that arrive before your period (thanks so much, luteal phase!). But the good news is they’re usually easy to treat and don’t always require a doctor’s attention. Plus, prevention amounts to little more than treating your vaginal area with all the love and care it deserves. As always, if you’re not sure how long you should use an over-the-counter treatment, or if your symptoms are cause for concern, contact your physician ASAP.
holds an M.S. in Professional Writing from NYU, and is a seasoned journalist, having written and reported on subjects ranging from TV and pop culture to health, wellness, and parenting over the course of her career. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, SheKnows, and numerous other outlets. A staunch mental health advocate, Sarene also hosts the podcast “Emotional Abuse Is Real.” Visit her website here, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.