Itching, burning, redness—a yeast infection can be a total pain. While they aren’t life-threatening, yeast infections are irritating—both physically and mentally. So, when undesirable symptoms appear ‘down there,’ should you consult your physician or self diagnose and treat with over-the-counter (OTC) medications?

First things first, unfortunately, almost all women will experience at least one yeast infection (genital candidiasis)—an infection caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida—at some point in life. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nearly 75 percent of women are likely to contract one yeast infection in their lifetime, with up to 45 percent of women experiencing recurring ones. Menopausal women are the group most prone to yeast infections, but they can affect anyone.

“Is this illness actually a yeast infection?”

“This is the question women need to ask when symptoms first present,” said Patricia Sulak, M.D., a board certified OB/GYN and professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Many women think itching and burning in the vaginal area only signals a yeast infection, but this is not true. These symptoms are indicative of a variety of conditions, including genital herpes.”

Sulak added irritation of the genital area can also manifest as yeast infection symptoms. “You could have itching and redness from shaving, or from chemical irritation. There really is no reason to use scented bath products or put perfumes and powders in the genital area,” she said. “All of these things will cause undesirable and unwanted symptoms in your sensitive nether region.”

So, how’s a girl to know the difference between a yeast infection or something else? The most common symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection include:

  • Burning, redness, itching and swelling of the vagina and vulva
  • Thick, white vaginal discharge similar to cottage cheese that does not have an odor
  • Pain during intercourse or urination

Luckily, there’s a pretty quick solution for women who suffer from first-time yeast infections and exacerbated yeast infections that don’t respond to topical treatment. “The good news about yeast infections is that they are always treatable,” Sulak said. “For women who get chronic yeast infections, oral prescription medications are extremely effective. Studies have shown patients who took prescription yeast infection tablets once a week for several months treated the condition faster. When you need long-term maintenance therapy for yeast infections, this tablet is the only answer. Over-the-counter medications won’t provide the same result.”

While there are many options available OTC to treat yeast infections, Sulak cautioned against using them for a first-time vaginal infection. “Any woman who experiences discomfort and abnormal symptoms in the vaginal area should always consult her health care provider,” she said. “Again, this is imperative because yeast infection symptoms are extremely similar to symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases.”

You can buy non-prescription yeast infection medications at your local pharmacy in the form of anti-fungal creams, tablets, ointments or suppositories you insert into the vagina. Application methods and length of treatment will depend on the brand you choose. If you suffer from recurring yeast infections a few times a year, it’s probably OK to use these over-the-counter medications as treatment—but you should still talk to your health care provider just to be safe.

“You should always check these products to ensure they are actually an anti-fungal and will successfully treat and resolve the infection,” Sulak said. “Millions of dollars are spent every year on OTC products that have no anti-yeast medication and claim they treat yeast infections. Instead, some of these medications only contain a local antiesthetic to alleviate certain symptoms like burning.”

The good news is when a yeast infection flares up, you’re not at risk for any other health conditions. “The worst thing that can happen when you don’t immediately treat a yeast infection is it develops into a really bad yeast infection,” Sulak said. “When the yeast becomes embedded in the skin, it can cause redness and inflammation in the entire genital area. These infections may take weeks to completely treat.”

Important to note, if symptoms continue despite the use of OTC anti-fungal products, it’s time to make an appointment with your physician. “If you use over-the-counter medication and your symptoms abate, that’s great,” Sulak said. “But, if they keep recurring, you need to get checked out. The bottom line is, if your symptoms don’t go away, you need to be seen.”

— Lauren Thompson

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