Yeast live in the vagina all the time in small, harmless numbers. But when these fungi grow out of control, the resulting itchiness, burning, and redness are extremely uncomfortable. In some cases, a thick, white, odorless discharge, resembling cottage cheese, also appears. Lactobacillus bacteria (a healthy type) normally keep the vagina’s pH and yeast levels in check. But the balance can be tipped by antibiotics, corticosteroids, uncontrolled diabetes, or raised estrogen levels from birth control or pregnancy. Yet, in many cases, there’s no easily identified culprit for the pesty yeast infection.
Here’s what’s new, what’s natural, and what’s tried-and-true in the battle to beat vaginal yeast infections:
For 5% of women, vaginal yeast infections are chronic, returning at least 4 times a year. In a study at Wayne State University School of Medicine, women with a history of recurrent episodes took the oral antifungal fluconazole (Diflucan) weekly for 6 months; during that time, the rate of recurring infection dropped 90%. Six months afterward, 43% were considered cured, compared with 22% of those taking a placebo. (Maintenance therapy with OTC creams, although messier than pills, has also been found effective.)
Many yogurts contain the same type of probiotics that keeps the vagina healthy, yet studies have not been able to prove effectively that eating a daily cup offers any benefit for vaginal yeast infection treatment. But in a recent Italian study, women with chronic yeast infections who placed a probiotic tablet directly in the vagina (once a night for 7 nights, then every 3 nights for 3 weeks, and then once a week) saw their rates of yeast infection drop by 87%. Laurie Cullen, ND, a naturopathic physician and a professor at Bastyr University, suggests treating an infection with a conventional therapy first, and then trying a Lactobacillus pill to maintain a healthy vaginal environment.