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What exactly is a yeast infection?
Candida yeast normally lives in the vagina, but certain conditions can create an environment that allows yeast to overgrow, causing an imbalance. The overuse of antibiotics, a weakened immune system (from HIV, AIDS or chemotherapy), douching and hormonal changes, such as pregnancy or menopause, are all contributing factors. Your family doctor can diagnose a yeast infection by having a vaginal swab tested. We asked both a physician and a naturopath for some prevention and treatment tips.
A naturopathic doctor's tips for preventing a yeast infection:
"Maintaining a healthy vaginal environment will help prevent yeast infections from occurring," says Zeynep Uraz, a naturopath and women's health teacher at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Here are her suggestions for keeping infections at bay, plus some alternative treatments.
1. Choose personal lubricants wisely
Glycerin-based lubricants can feed yeast, so choose natural plant-or water-based products. "And if you use sex toys, clean them regularly," says Uraz.
2. Maintain a healthy diet
This includes eating nutritious foods and lowering your intake of sugar, which can fuel yeast. Eating one cup of unsweetened plain yogurt daily may also help with prevention.
3. Go commando at night
Not wearing underwear to bed promotes airflow, as does wearing breathable cotton underwear. Thongs are out because they're "a tightrope for bacteria to walk across from your rectum to your vagina," says Uraz. Unless it's really necessary, don't wear panty liners, which restrict airflow.
4. Give garlic a try
Uraz says to wrap a whole clove of garlic (with the papery skin removed but the membrane intact) in gauze, then insert it into your vagina. Leave it in for at least an hour (or overnight if it doesn't cause irritation), then remove.
5. Take echinacea
Taken orally, immune-boosting echinacea may help prevent recurrent yeast infections. Consult your naturopathic doctor to get the right kind and dosage information.
A medical doctor's tips for preventing a yeast infection:
Dr. Heather Jenkins, MD, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, says it's important to diagnose the problem before treating your symptoms. "See your health-care provider to determine whether the symptoms really are from a yeast infection and not the result of changing your sexual-health practices." Here are some of her prevention and treatment tips to promote vaginal health.
6. Don't douche
This method of washing out the vagina, usually with a mix of water and vinegar, affects the balance of good and bad bacteria. Drugstore douches may also contain antiseptics and fragrances.
7. Try taking probiotics
In addition to getting probiotics (in active culture yogurt, soy milk, sauerkraut, pickles and dark chocolate, among other foods) from your diet, you can also try supplements. Check with your health-care provider or pharmacist first.
8. Go easy on antibiotics
One of the most common causes of yeast infections, antibiotics change the amount of bacteria and other organisms in the vagina. They can also affect the vagina's acidity or pH balance, allowing yeast to overgrow.
9. Use an OTC cream
Most vaginal yeast infections can be treated with an over-the-counter cream or suppository (such as Canesten or Monistat), which come in one-, three- or seven-day formulations. "If the symptoms have been present for a few days, I advise taking the longer doses," says Dr. Jenkins.
10. Attack the yeast with boric acid
A white crystalline substance with antifungal and antiviral properties, "boric acid lowers the pH level of the vagina," says Dr. Jenkins. You don't need a prescription; a pharmacist can prepare some vaginal-suppository capsules for you and tell you how to use them. Pregnant women should not use boric acid.
For more stories on feminine care, check out the 10 things you didn't know about your breasts.