Candidiasis, more commonly known as a yeast infection or thrush, is caused by the fungus Candida. Thrush is the second most common vaginal infection, but it can also affect the penis, anus and rectum, oral cavity, and other areas in the human body that are generally warm, dark, and moist. While most vaginal yeast infections can be resolved with a single treatment, immunocompromised individuals like people living with HIV are at risk of more serious complications.
Candida lives naturally in the body but is kept in check by naturally occurring bacteria. Thrush occurs when there is an imbalance in the levels of Candida and the bacteria that keeps it under control. Researchers note vaginal thrush also more frequently appears during certain periods of life like pregnancy, when taking certain medications like the pill, or in ill or immunocompromised folks. Vaginal thrush is not uncommon, and the National Library of Medicine reports up to 75 percent of all women will develop at least one yeast infection at some point in their lives.
Vaginal thrush is characterized at first by itching inside the vagina (and often on the labia if it has spread), later followed by a painful burning sensation. The membrane lining the vagina grows red and inflamed and becomes coated with a white film. Symptoms often include a foul-smelling, whitish-yellowish discharge resembling cottage cheese or curdled milk. It has alternatively been described in other cases as watery or chunky. There are many cases where no symptoms are exhibited at all.
A doctor can usually make a diagnosis of vaginal thrush from a description of symptoms followed by a quick examination of the vagina’s lining. Sometimes a doctor will want to take a sample of any vaginal discharge for further analysis. Treatment usually involves a single dose of an antifungal ointment applied to the infected area or via a suppository inserted into the vagina. Folks who suffer frequent vaginal yeast infections may require more intensive treatment such as regular oral doses of antifungal medication.
Most women will suffer from at least one vaginal yeast infection during their lives, but there are steps that can be taken to limit the risk of vaginal thrush. Doctors recommend avoiding vaginal douches or other intimate hygiene products for the vagina which may upset the natural bacterial balance. Researchers also say there is not enough evidence to say whether live lactic acid bacteria (better known as probiotics) help prevent vaginal thrush. They have also questioned whether home remedies like inserting garlic cloves or tampons soaked in herbal remedies into the vagina cause more harm than good.
Like all variations of thrush, a vaginal yeast infection can become more serious if left untreated, and even fatal in extreme cases. This is true for immunocompromised patients like people living with HIV. Pregnant women with vaginal thrush are at a slightly higher risk of suffering premature labor or birth, or miscarriage, and other complications. Thrush can be also spread to babies during the birth which can lead to diaper or nappy rash as well as other inflammations.
In extremely rare cases, the infection can spread and even lead to more serious conditions like systemic candidiasis which has a mortality rate of 71 to 79 percent.