What You Need To Know About Candida

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Maybe you've forgotten all about candida after high school biology, or maybe you've never even heard of it. But one quick Google search could give you the idea that it's responsible for your fatigue, headaches, bloating, and even memory problems. So how much of this "candida syndrome" is total internet pseudoscience? Kind of a lot, actually.

Many of these ideas can be traced back to the early '90s, after the publication of a book called The Yeast Connection, which claimed that all of those non-specific symptoms (and more!) could be signs of an overgrowth of candida throughout your entire body. Since then, however, those claims still have yet to be proven and have, therefore, been rejected by mainstream science and medicine.

But that doesn't mean candida isn't an important factor when it comes to your health. Here's what you really need to know about it — and how it actually affects you.

What is candida?
It's yeast! That means it's a fungus, not a bacteria or a virus. In fact, there are a few different types of candida that live on and inside of you normally. But when we're talking about yeast causing problems, we're usually talking about Candida albicans.

What problems can it cause?
Under normal conditions, candida is an important part of your fragile inner ecosystem. But if your immune system is otherwise compromised, that balance may be thrown off. In those circumstances, an overgrowth of candida can lead to candidiasis, a.k.a. a yeast infection or "thrush."

Yeast infections are most common in the vagina (causing itching, redness, burning, and a cottage cheese-like discharge) and mouth (leaving you with a thick, white coating on your tongue and cheeks as well as pain and redness). But you can also have localized yeast infections on your nails or patches of your skin, and they commonly develop on your nipples during breastfeeding.

People who have diabetes, are pregnant, or douche are also more likely to develop yeast infections because all of those things can throw your yeast population out of whack. And it's not totally uncommon for people to develop yeast infections after taking a round of antibiotics because, in addition to the strain that being sick places on your immune system, those drugs upset the delicate bacteria-fungi balance. Plus, if your immune system is already compromised (e.g. you're getting chemo or you have HIV), your body has a harder time keeping that balance set.

How do I get rid of it?
Well, first off, remember that you don't want to totally get rid of your candida — it's important! But, if you're dealing with an actual infection, the easiest way to handle it is to talk to your doctor and get a prescription for anti-fungal medications. There are also over-the-counter medications, which are generally safe. But it's still a good idea to at least check in with your doctor before using one.

And definitely make an appointment if those products aren't helping. Other conditions (such as bacterial vaginosis) often mimic the symptoms of yeast infections, and your doctor can help you figure out what's really going on.

Some alternative health sections of the web may recommend a restrictive diet to counter your "candida syndrome." But as the Mayo Clinic notes, there's really no evidence that any of us should be following a specific "candida diet."

If your yeast infections keep coming back, that may be a sign of a larger issue, such as diabetes, and it's definitely worth talking to your doc about. She may suggest a yeast culture to figure out which strain is infecting you (some don't respond so well to usual treatments), and she may suggest probiotics or simply switching to more breathable undies.
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