There’s no beating around the bush on this one.
For the last three years I have suffered from recurring thrush. In June 2019 I was on a weekend break with my ex-boyfriend in Berlin when I felt a familiar burn coupled with pain in my vagina. Alarm bells rang. How could I possibly have thrush again? I’d had it just two weeks ago. I duly went off to the local pharmacist, managed to get my hands on a Canesten pessary (it was fun trying to explain that in German) and thought nothing of it. That evening I realised that in the last year I’d had thrush a total of six times, with the gap between each flare-up getting shorter and shorter.
Two weeks later it struck again. This time I went straight to my GP and was referred to my first of many gynaecologist appointments, where I had vaginal samples taken and was carted off for blood tests with talk of type 2 diabetes ringing in my ears. A sample showed that it was in fact recurring vulvovaginal candidiasis infection, caused by an overgrowth of Candida (a yeast which occurs naturally in the body). I was now resistant to over-the-counter medication and was put on my first six-week course of fluconazole, assured that this would be my ticket out of my now biweekly bouts of thrush.
The lack of sympathy from my doctors was startling. The general feeling was, 'Well, it’s not that bad'. It was actually. I would get rashes across my whole body, particularly on my cheeks, arms, head and back, which were extremely itchy and a sign that the next day I would indeed have thrush again. Antihistamines became my new best friends. My second cycle of fluconazole didn’t work – if anything, it made it worse. By this point, I’d had over a year of this and the stress of a global pandemic only worsened my symptoms. With nothing else to focus on, I googled cures like my life depended on it.
My mental health took an enormous knock and I was trapped in a vicious circle of constant paranoia. To make matters worse, each new treatment raised my hopes only to dash them as it failed to keep the thrush permanently at bay. Every twinge in my vagina had me in hysterics and for over a year and a half sex was painful or uncomfortable. My relationship suffered. I felt disgusting, like I had failed to get on top of it, and had to time my sex life around my thrush schedule. Not exactly sexy. Every appointment I was told the same thing over and over again. Stop using tampons. Don’t eat sugar. Wear cotton underwear. Change out of sweaty workout clothes as soon as possible. After my third unsuccessful round of fluconazole, I was sent away from the doctor’s office with nothing. There wasn’t anything else they could do.
When it got to the point that kissing my boyfriend after he'd eaten bread would terrify me – I thought it was putting extra yeast into my body – I realised I was at crisis point.
Not one to sit around and wait for someone to fix me, I hit the alternative medicine market. I met a naturopath who put me on a restrictive diet that she assured me would work after a mere two months. I jumped on this – an end date! My day would start with raw garlic cloves, a natural antifungal. They made me vomit every time I took them. No sugar, booze, carbs, fruit, tea, coffee. No peanut butter. I started looking at food as the enemy. And I was very, very hungry. For someone who adores food, has studied nutrition and looks forward to every mealtime, snack and cup of tea, this was especially triggering but I persevered. I became reclusive and antisocial. My constant sadness and frustration affected my relationship.
Worst of all, after two long months, it didn’t help. I was devastated.
I have tried boric acid capsules, vaginal probiotics, homeopathic suppositories, changing my underwear three times a day, not wearing underwear, only wearing bamboo or cotton pants, deep cleaning everything I’ve ever worn, using towels once and washing them immediately. My ex and I started using condoms and I got my coil taken out in the blind hope that it could be the root cause of it all. When it got to the point that kissing him after he’d eaten bread would terrify me – I thought it was putting extra yeast into my body – I realised I was at crisis point. I stopped everything and went back to the drawing board.
Eventually I began to notice a pattern. The thrush was on a timer, triggered by my period. Thrush would arrive exactly five days before and five days after my period, usually lingering for the whole month. I spoke to further doctors and specialists explaining the cycle, skin problems and the unbelievable pain I would get when the thrush came on. They didn’t listen. Every time I got the same chat about not wearing tights or workout clothes and had I thought that maybe my boyfriend and I were simply passing it back and forth to each other? It was demoralising and demeaning.
Not being taken seriously was infuriating. Doctors made me feel as though I were to blame for the drugs not working. As if I were not taking their advice on board.
Three out of four British women will get thrush at least once in their life, with 1.2 million women in the UK suffering from recurrent thrush. Yet there are no new treatments on the horizon for British people with vaginas. In June, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first new antifungal drug in over 20 years, Brexafemme, marketed as the first medication to kill all vaginal yeast infections, including recurring ones. The treatment will reportedly cost between $350 and $450 (£180 and £330) and there is no word of when it might reach the UK. Only in the marketing of this drug have I seen sympathetic language and acknowledgement of how much those experiencing recurring thrush actually suffer.
There has been some discussion on the gender health gap in recent years and the fact is that thrush is largely a female problem. One in 10 men will get it in their lifetime and most will not need treatment or even notice they have it, as it is often asymptomatic in men. As is so often the case, it would seem that the lack of research into and new treatments for thrush comes down to the fact that it primarily affects women.
Three years into my journey, acupuncture and CBD oil are the only treatments that give me any form of relief. Through these, I control the symptoms and at least alleviate the pain. It is incredible to find something, finally, that helps but acupuncture is costly and weekly treatments have dried up my savings completely.
A recent change in circumstances means that my monthly expenses are much higher now and acupuncture might have to go. The thought terrifies me. The idea of thrush coming back and completely overrunning my life again is the only reason I persevere with the treatment.
The taboo surrounding thrush means that I have not always been confident talking about it. This really shouldn’t be the case, especially considering the number of people it affects. If those of us who have suffered from recurrent thrush can raise awareness then we can demand better, updated research into women’s health, leading to new treatments or at least NHS subsidies for alternative treatments that do work. Most importantly, we must make it commonplace for those who are suffering to find space to talk about what they’re going through without shame. That would have brought me some kind of relief at least.
This article was originally published on Refinery29 UK.