This article is mainly focused on vaginal yeast infections (aka vaginal thrush) but many of the causes we list below will also hold true for infections that occur on other parts of the body. And yes, this information is also relevant for male yeast infections. So men, listen up.
Understanding the causes of yeast infections can often lead to prevention. That’s why this information is important. But if you want to skip it, feel free to head straight over to our article on how to get rid of a yeast infection.
As any women who has suffered from a yeast infection will tell you, life is miserable during a flare-up. The main symptom is an intense itching and burring sensation in the vagina and vulva, but there are other symptoms too. (Men, here’s information on male yeast infection symptoms). An infection occurs when the Candida albicans yeast that is naturally present in the vagina in small quantities grows rapidly into an outbreak. Subtle changes in the temperature, moisture and biochemistry of the vagina and vulva can trigger this overgrowth.
So what triggers these changes? How do you get yeast infections?
How do you get a yeast infection?
Antibiotics – Some health professional believe that the (over)use of antibiotics in many western countries is the primary cause of vaginal yeast infections. Antibiotics destroy bacteria in the body, both the “good” and the “bad” species. Unfortunately by doing this, they upset the balance of bacteria in our system. The reduced populations of “good” bacteria in our body can no longer compete with yeasts (and other potential pathogens) for space and nutrients, with the result that the yeasts can take over. That’s why you’ll find probiotic supplements recommended as part of an anti-Candida strategy – see this article for guidance to 3 of the best probiotics on the market.
Chemicals – The most common culprits are highly perfumed vaginal douches, deodorants and antibacterial soaps. Not only do they disrupt the same good bacteria described above, but they can also alter the pH of the vagina and can damage the protective mucus membranes making conditions more susceptible to yeast growth. Perfumed toilet paper, scented tampons, bubble bath chemicals and even certain laundry detergents can have a similar effect and are recognized causes of a yeast infection.
Clothing – The Candida albicans yeast is a type of fungus. And, like all fungal organisms, it flourishes in moist, damp, protected, airless and dark environments. That’s why infections tend to take hold in skin folds, in cracks in the corner of the mouth, the groin area, the mouth and throat and in skin crevices. So if you have a habit of wearing tight, synthetic underwear made from a non-ventilating material that traps heat and moisture, you’ll be creating exactly the kind of conditions for optimal yeast growth. Unbleached, un-dyed cotton underwear is the way to go. Thrown out those tight latex trousers while you are at it. If you can, try to sleep without wearing any underwear. Be sure to change your underwear frequently and wash it well, on the warm cycle.
Condoms and spermicides – Some condom brands use a spermicide ingredient called nonoxynol-9. While this does has strong detergent properties, recent studies have linked its use with an increased risk of yeast and bladder infections. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some women are allergic to latex. To be extra sure, use a non-latex condom and spermicides that do not contain nonoxynol-9.
Hormones – As a women you can’t do much about hormonal fluctuations. But unfortunately there is evidence to suggest that yeast infections can be triggered by pregnancy, menopause and hormonal changes that occur dueling the menstrual cycle. If you are on the pill and are experiencing recurrent yeast infections, it may be worth changing brands to see if things improve.
Steroids – The use of steroids has been linked to increased incidence of yeast infections. If you are using steroids to treat arthritis, asthma or lupus and are having trouble with yeast infections, discuss your situation with your doctor.
Sex – A common question is “Can sex cause yeast infections?” Unfortunately “yes” Candida can be passed from person to person during sex. But “no” it is not formally defined as a Sexually Transmitted Disease (or STD) as celibate people can also develop an infection. Remember that sex toys can be the source of infection so clean these carefully after use. It’s best to avoid full sexual intercourse if you are experiencing a yeast flare-up. Read more about yeast infection and sex.
Diet – You may have come across references to anti-Candida diets, Candida cleanse diets or a yeast free diet. They all have one thing in common; reducing the intake of simple sugars. It is thought that yeasts feed on sugars, so reducing blood-sugar levels will have the effect of weakening the outbreak. (With localized vaginal yeast infections lowered sugar levels in urine may be the primary benefit). An anti-Candida diet is certainly a good precautionary measure. What’s more, a diet that’s low in sugar does wonders for the waist-line.