What is thrush?

Thrush is a vaginal yeast infection which affects around 75% of women at some point during their lives. It is caused by a fungus called Candida albicans and can also be known as candida infection, or candidosis.

Candida albicans is a naturally occurring fungus which is usually found in the moist parts of the body such as the vagina. The body is usually able to keep the growth of yeast under control, but in thrush, the yeast takes over, resulting in an infection.

What are the symptoms of thrush?

If you have thrush, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A thick, white, cheese-like vaginal discharge.
  • Burning or itching around the vagina.
  • Redness, soreness and swelling of the vulva (the female external genitalia).
  • Burning sensation when urinating.
  • Pain or discomfort during sexual intercourse.

What causes thrush?

There are a number of factors which may make a woman more susceptible to developing thrush:

  • Taking antibiotics: The growth of yeast in the vagina is kept under control by certain 'friendly' bacteria. Antibiotics kill these bacteria, allowing the yeast to take over.
  • Changes in female sex hormone levels (due to pregnancy, taking the contraceptive pill, or before periods): this can alter the pH balance in the vagina making it more alkaline. Yeast thrives in an alkaline environment.
  • Diabetes: This raises the sugar content in your blood and urine, which encourages the growth of yeast.
  • Stress: Women who are under stress from a poor diet, an illness or lack of sleep are more susceptible.
  • A weak immune system: If your immune system has been weakened by something like chemotherapy, you may be more susceptible to vaginal yeast infections.

How is thrush treated?

If properly treated, the majority of vaginal yeast infections are gone within two weeks. Sometimes it only takes a few days. If left untreated however, these infections can persist for years.

Treatment is usually with antifungal medication. Generally you will be given a combination of a cream that is administered directly to the outside of the vagina, which helps relive the itching and soreness, and either a pessary (tablet inserted into the vagina) or tablets taken by mouth, which will treat the internal infection. These medicines are available from a pharmacy, without a doctor’s prescription. However, you should see your doctor if you are at all unsure if the problem is thrush, or if the problem is recurring.

The following measures may also help:

  • Bathing in warm, salted water is very soothing. You should avoid all chemicals, such as bubble bath and perfumed soap during an infection.
  • Avoid tights or tight-fitting clothing such as Lycra leggings, if possible.
  • If you are sexually active, your doctor may recommend simultaneous treatment of your sexual partner(s) if they have symptoms, to prevent re-infection.

How can I help prevent thrush?

There are a number of things that you can do to help prevent vaginal yeast infections:

  • Keep the external genital area clean and dry. After washing, pat the area dry. If you have been swimming, change quickly into your dry clothes. Try not to spend prolonged periods of time in a wet bathing suit.
  • Wear loose cotton underwear. If possible, do not wear underwear (pants) in bed in order to give your genital area a breather. Avoid wearing tights if you are prone to recurrent infections.
  • Avoid irritating soaps, bubble baths and shower gels.
  • Change tampons and sanitary towels frequently.
  • Wipe front to back after urinating. This prevents yeast that may be in your anus from getting into your vagina. If wearing sanitary pads, avoid the perfumed ones as the perfume may cause irritation, which may trigger a yeast infection.
  • Avoid antibiotics if possible – and only take antibiotics that have been prescribed to you by your doctor.
  • If you are prone to yeast infections, inform your doctor so that she/he can consider giving preventive treatment if you need to take antibiotics.

Can thrush recur?

Unfortunately yes. Many women experience more than one vaginal yeast infection in their life.

A very small proportion of women with vaginal yeast infections develop a condition called recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC). This is when there are four or more symptomatic vaginal yeast infections in a one-year period.

If your vaginal yeast infection keeps recurring, visit your doctor.

Reviewed: November 8, 2006

Discussions on this topic are now closed.