Yeast infections are many things—aggravating, itchy, kinda gross—but one thing they shouldn’t be is mysterious. These incredibly common infections are caused by a fungus that is naturally present in your body. When that fungus level rises, which can happen due to increased estrogen levels, antibiotics, or pregnancy, it can lead to an infection, says Salena Zanotti, M.D., ob-gyn at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Symptoms of a yeast infection can be a white discharge, sometimes cottage cheese-like, vulvo-vaginal itching, and/or burning,” says Zanotti. Other symptoms can include a burning when you pee or pain during sex, all of which should point you straight to a doc to get checked out.
Three out of four women get a yeast infection in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But still, there’s a lot of confusion about this pesky problem. Monistat, the popular over-the-counter remedy for yeast infections, commissioned a study on some of the myths surrounding yeast infections, asking 1,000 women between the ages of 16 and 24 what they know (or think they know) about yeast infections.
Turns out a lot of them (more than half) have no idea what to do when they feel like they have a yeast infection because they feel stigmatized by them. Of those surveyed who experienced yeast infections, 37 percent said it made them feel like they did something wrong, 42 percent reported feeling self-conscious; and 55 percent said they were afraid of being negatively judged by others and that it made them feel dirty. That’s a lot of power for a little fungus!
Let us set the record straight:
MYTH: 81 percent of respondents thought having sex was a primary cause of yeast infections.
The Truth: Sex does not cause yeast infections. “Yeast infections are not considered a sexually transmitted disease, but they do occur more in sexually active women,” says Zanotti. “There can be sexual transmission of yeast to a partner and both partners can be colonized with the same kind of yeast, but the number of yeast infections is not related to the number of partners a woman has.”
MYTH: 59 percent of women surveyed by Monistat believe yeast infections are highly contagious.
The Truth: They are not. They’re triggered by an imbalance of the vagina’s natural bacteria and cannot be “caught.” As Zanotti explains: “They cannot be acquired by casual contact and items like towels, toilet seats, etc.” Here’s the catch: While a yeast infection isn’t considered a sexually transmitted disease, there is a small chance your guy could wind up with an itchy rash if you have unprotected sex while infected. Plus, if you already have a yeast infection, getting busy can make it feel much worse, since the vaginal tissue is already irritated. So best to just avoid getting busy.
(Though it’s always a good idea to keep your sex toys clean—use this organic toy cleaner from the Women’s Health Boutique.)
MYTH: There is no way to avoid getting a yeast infection.
The Truth: There’s some colloquial evidence that using unscented soaps and body washes can help, and that avoiding tight clothing that traps sweat, changing out of wet bathing suits, and wearing breathable cotton underwear (especially when working out!) can lessen your chances of infection. However, according to Zanotti, unless you have recurrent yeast infections, there’s not much to be done. If you do have frequent yeast infections, that’s when then you may look for factors you can modify like antibiotic use.
MYTH: Your diet could be the cause or the cure.
The Truth: “Yogurt [and] probiotics do not help prevent them,” Zanotti says. “Certain individuals do have recurrent yeast infections and may see improvement by reducing the sugars or carbs in their diet. Diabetics have a higher risk of a yeast infection if they do not have good sugar control.” But let it be said here: “Yogurts have not been found to be helpful in preventing them.”
MYTH: Vaginal bleeding is a common symptom of yeast infections.
The Truth: “In the rare case, a person may have such irritation that they scratch enough to make their skin bleed, but normally there is no vaginal bleeding,” says Zanotti. If you are seeing vaginal blood during an infection, get to your M.D. stat.
MYTH: 30 percent of respondents thought using a condom would reduce their risk of a yeast infection.
The Truth: While there are a lot of good reasons to use a condom, preventing a yeast infection is not one of them. “Some women feel they have a yeast infection after sex because they have burning or itching,” says Zanotti. “This is often a reaction to the condom or just from the friction of sex, not a yeast infection.”.
MYTH: Yeast infections are a serious problem, and the treatment is expensive and inconvenient.
The Truth: “Vaginal yeast infections do not cause any serious problems, even in pregnancy, unless you are severely immunocompromised,” says Zanotti. Pregnant women might see them more often because of hormonal changes, but in short, yeast infections are annoying, but not particularly serious for most of the population.
MYTH: Yeast infections cannot be cured. According to Monistat’s survey, 67 percent of respondents think these annoying infections are permanent and can never be cured.
The Truth: Typically, yeast infections are fairly easy to cure. According to Zanotti, yeast infections can be treated with various antifungals, either used intra-vaginally or orally. There are over-the-counter preparations that work well. When those don’t, there are prescription vaginal creams or a pill. One note: Check with your M.D. if you’re unsure that what you have is actually a yeast infection before buying something at the drug store.