Until you’ve had a yeast infection, the word “yeast” means very little to you. At most, it’s just an ingredient in bread. But after your vagina has been plagued by the uncomfortable, itchy infection, the word yeast will never have the same innocuous ring to it again. And if you get chronic or recurring yeast infections, it’s even worse.
Mary Jane Minkin, MD, OB/GYN at Yale University School of Medicine, says that a little bit of yeast is normal for just about every person with a vagina. “But the question is: What makes the vagina a happy place for yeast to multiply and cause problems like itching and burning and white cheesy discharge?” she says. She doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but there are a few reasons. In general, yeast thrives in moist environments, and occurs when the healthy probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus is flourishing within the vagina. This stops the yeasty fungus called Candida from growing and causing an infection. This happens to many of us at some point or another, and it can be treated with an antibiotic or an over the counter medication.
However, if your yeast infections just won’t go away, it’s not just annoying — it could be a sign of a bigger health issue. If this keeps happening to you, don't think that you're cursed. There are myriad underlying reasons why this could occur, but you should see a doctor to try to figure out what’s going on. It could be any of the following reasons, but you likely won't know until you talk it through with a health care professional.
It wasn’t treated correctly in the first place
Minkin says that some women just assume they have a yeast infection at the first sign of itching, and head to the drugstore to treat it with Monistat. However, it’s possible the yeast infection didn’t respond to this kind of treatment. Not all yeast is that east to fight off. If this is the case, your doctor might need to prescribe a long-term antifungal medication.
You have a pH problem
Minkin says that if your vagina’s pH is being thrown off constantly by factors such as semen or blood from your periods, all of which can make you more susceptible to infection.
You douche frequently
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Do. Not. Douche. It can do more harm than good, and disrupt or kill the good bacteria in the vagina that protects you from yeast.
You leave on your sweaty underwear
Minkin says that people who go to the gym are a lot are more prone to yeast infections, especially when they don’t change out of their sweaty underwear and spandex after working out. Yeast loves moisture and dark places like the vagina. When the two are combined frequently, it can become a hotbed for yeast.
The infections are the result of another condition
Minkin warns that chronic yeast infections can occasionally be a sign of a bigger problem with your health. “Diabetes can predispose you, and, indeed, sometimes I’ll have a patient come in who’s had five yeast infections in the last six months and I’ll test for diabetes,” she says. This is because of blood sugar levels. “Yeast loves sugar,” she warns. HIV can also predispose you to yeast infections, she says.
You’re eating too much sugar
You might not have diabetes, but if you’re eating tons of sugar constantly, it might be contributing to the growth of yeast in your vagina, which is impacted by your gut’s microbiome.
If you think this might be the case, try cutting out or cutting down on sugary products and see if it makes a difference. “Pardon my English, but try to piss off your yeast,” Minkin says. “If you can avoid sugar for a while and the infections go away, you’re dong something right.”
Yeast can be transferred between people. It’s not an STI, but it’s possible to pass yeast back and forth with a sexual partner, especially if you’re not using protection. Your doctor might suggest using a condom or a dental dam if they suspect this is a contributor to your problem, according to Healthline.
You have a drug-resistant strain of yeast
Healthline reports that these kinds of infections are rare, but there’s a species of yeast that doesn’t respond to the medications usually prescribed for these kinds of infections. If this is the culprit, your doc might asking you to take a different kind of medicine and make other lifestyle changes.
They’re not yeast infections at all
Thanks to at-home tests and cheap over the counter medications for yeast, it's never been easier to self-diagnose yeast infections. It's also tempting, because it can be a time- and money-saver. However, Minkin says that when people try to treat yeast infections without the help of a doctor, it's a always a risk because they could be totally off base with their diagnosis.
Itching can also signal other other infections such as bacterial vaginosis, which a doctor would need to treat with an antibiotic. You may think you’ve been treating multiple yeast infections on your own, when, in fact, you’ve been treating the wrong thing this whole time.