Vaginal thrush is yeast infection that is very common in women. It is caused by a group of fungi called Candida, which can exist naturally in the vagina without causing any problems; however, if the natural balance of micro-organisms is disrupted, the Candida multiply and an infection develops.
The causes of vaginal thrush vary. The risk of infection increases if a woman:
- is taking antibiotics
- has poorly controlled diabetes
- has a weakened immune system
- suffers from vaginal dryness and/or tightness during sexual intercourse
- is pregnant
- is aged 20 to 40 years (thrush is less common in girls who have not started their period and women following menopause)
Vaginal thrush may also be triggered by sexual intercourse, and can occasionally be passed on to sexual partners. In men, thrush usually affects the head of the penis causing irritation, redness and/or discharge. It is advisable to use a condom whilst having sex with your partner if they have thrush.
Symptoms of vaginal thrush include:
- itching and tenderness around the entrance of the vagina
vaginal discharge, which is generally odourless
- pain or increased sensitivity during sexual intercourse
- a stinging sensation when peeing
If the infection persists the skin around the vagina may also become red, swollen or cracked.
Mild thrush is usually treated with a short course of antifungal medication. The symptoms begin to clear within a week or two. Treatment may need to be continued for longer if repeated thrush infections occur.
The main types of treatment for thrush involve:
- pessaries – special capsules that are inserted into the vagina using a special applicator
- intravaginal creams – which are also placed into the vagina using an applicator
- oral anti-fungal medication
These treatments are equally effective, and personal choice will influence the method you use. However, pregnant women are not able to take the oral medication. Depending on your symptoms, it may also be beneficial to use a cream to relieve the itchiness and soreness of the skin surrounding the vagina.
To reduce your risk of contracting thrush you may try:
- using water and an emollient (moisturiser) to clean the skin around your vagina, as opposed to a perfumed soap, and avoid cleaning this area more than once a day
- applying a greasier moisturiser to the skin around your vagina several times a day to protect it (but be aware that oil-based moisturisers can weaken condoms)
- avoid potential irritants in perfumed soaps, shower gels, vaginal deodorants, wipes and douches
- avoid wearing tight-fitting underwear, trousers or tights; some women find that silk underwear designed for people with eczema and thrush is beneficial
- ensure your blood sugar levels are well controlled if you have diabetes
Some women have benefited from taking probiotic yoghurts/ supplements to reduce the risk of thrush, however there is little evidence suggesting a significant reduction of cases has been seen because of this.
When to seek further advice
It is advisable to get medical advice from your GP if:
- it is the first time you have had a thrush infection
- you are aged below 16 years or over 60 years
- you are pregnant or breastfeeding
- you have unusual symptoms, such as smelly discharge or sores on the skin surrounding your vagina
- you have abnormal vaginal bleeding or pain in your lower tummy
- you have had a reaction to antifungal treatment in the past, or it didn’t work
- your symptoms do not appear to be improving after 7 – 14 days of treatment
Thrush does not usually provide cause for concern, however if you are suffering from any of the issues above your doctor may want to take a swab from your vagina to confirm the diagnosis and/or carry out further tests. They will also advise you on the most suitable treatment and provide you with a prescription (if necessary).