The words "Let's Stop Calling Yeast Infections "Gross" sit on a white box on top of purple brush strokes on a light purple background. The Hedonish logo is in teal at the bottom left of the graphic

If you thought, “eww, why is she writing an article about yeast infections,” then your reaction is exactly why I’m writing this.

The people I’m friends with are the “open book” sort. It’s a trait I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. So it struck me as odd that during a long conversation in which I explained my struggles with vulva pain and they told me all the hot sex they had over the weekend, my friend got bashful when the topic of yeast infections came up. “She had a yeast infection….sorry if that’s too much information…” they told me.

Turns out folks, that the “TMI Line” falls somewhere after details about kinky hot sex and before the discussion of an extremely common infection.

Yeast infections suck… a lot. I don’t think anyone who has had one would disagree with that assessment—but this stigma that they’re so “gross” is a bit dramatic, isn’t it? As if having an uncomfortable infection isn’t bad enough, we’re also supposed to feel ashamed to have it?

Sadly, a stigma does exist—a 2012 survey showed that 67% vulva-owners felt a yeast infection was embarrassing, and almost 30% said they were somewhat worried others would judge them if they knew they had a yeast infection. Only 45% of those surveyed said they felt comfortable discussing a yeast infection with a friend, however, 82% said they’d feel comfortable discussing a urinary tract infection. The worse part: almost 10% said they wouldn’t be comfortable talking to a yeast infection with anyone—including their doctor.

There are a lot of gross things out in the world, most of which I refuse to google (because you can’t unsee things), but yeast infections aren’t one of them. In fact, it’s one of the most common infections people with vulvas get and chances are that you or a partner has had one since 75% of people with a vulva get a yeast infection at least once, and 45% will get two or more in their lifetime.

Statistically, you’re more “normal” if you DO get a yeast infection than if you never have one. 

So what is a yeast infection?

Yeast a type of fungus called Candida that normally exists inside the body, like in the vagina or the mouth, as well as other places, such as the skin. It’s totally normal, it’s there all the time, everyone’s got it, and it typically doesn’t cause any problems. Under some circumstances the balance can get thrown off and allows for more yeast growth than normal. 

In vaginal yeast infections, the “environment” of the vagina can occasionally change and allow for more yeast growth than it should, and voila, you get a yeast infection. Doctors like to be fancy though, so it can also be referred to as “vaginal candidiasis,” “vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC),” or “candidal vaginitis,” but it all means the same thing. Yeast infections are one of the most common types of vaginitis (along with bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis), so you might also hear the term “vaginitis” thrown around, which an umbrella word used to describe any “inflammation of the vagina that can result in discharge, itching, and pain.” 

Vaginal yeast infections are so common because there’s a laundry list of factors that can increase your chances of getting a yeast infection:

  • Hormonal contraceptives (particularly ones that contain estrogen)
  • Antibiotics (one of the leading causes) 
  • Corticosteroids
  • Wearing clothes that don’t breathe well (i.e. underwear, tight jeans, a wet swimsuit, etc.)
  • Douches and vaginal sprays or other products being used on/in your vulva
  • Normal hormonal changes from your menstrual cycle
  • Natural reactions to another person’s genital chemistry
  • Allergic reactions
  • Chemotherapy
  • Elevated sugar levels
  • Being pregnant
  • HIV or being otherwise immunocompromised

And believe it or not, that’s not a full list—there are other factors too, but the point is: yeast infections are very common and there’s a very long list of things that can contribute to you having one. 

In researching information for this article, I came across some disconcerting myths about yeast infections, so before we go any further, let’s tackle those:

1. Yeast infections are NOT an STI, nor do they indicate that you have an STI (however, it also doesn’t mean that you do not have an STI and it’s a good idea to get tested regularly).
2. If your partner has a yeast infection it is not an indication that they’ve cheated.

Where does this stigma that yeast infections are “gross” come from?

Like most vaginal infections, yeast infections can cause discharge and a change in scent—but vaginas produce discharge all the time (and it’s usually perfectly normal) and the scent changes depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle.

Depending on your body, any medications you’re on, and a multitude of other factors yeast infections can present differently. Some people get pain, but no itchiness or discharge. All bodies are different and if you feel like something is off, as inconvenient as it is, it’s best to get checked out by a doctor as soon as possible. There are other conditions that are often mistaken for a yeast infection, like bacterial vaginosis that aren’t a big deal if treated properly, but they do require different medications to treat.

Most of the time doctors can prescribe an anti-fungal that comes in a pill form called fluconazole (although there are other medications too) that can help clear up a yeast infection pretty quickly.

PRO TIP: Doctor’s don’t always remember to mention it, but be sure not to drink any alcohol within 24-hours of taking fluconazole as it will make you feel pretty awful (trust me, I’m speaking from experience on this one).

While I’m not making any recommendations, for those who aren’t able to visit a doctor, there’s also over the counter treatments you can get at most pharmacies and a wide range of DIY solutions—like using a clove of garlic… but then you might spend your morning fishing garlic out of your vagina, and there’s not yet scientific proof that it will help. That said, if you have access to a doctor, I suggest taking that route.

Chronic Yeast Infections

An unlucky 5-10% of people with a vulva will experience chronic yeast infections (or “Recurrent Vulvovaginal Candidiasis” in doctor-speak), which means they have 4 or more yeast infections a year. A specific strain of Candida called Candida albicans accounts for 80%-90% of yeast infections, but about a third of recurrent yeast infections are caused by other strains of Candida which may be more resistant to some types of treatment. Truth is, other than some of the more obvious explanations, like having some of the conditions I listed above or being on certain medications, science doesn’t have a definitive answer about why some people get chronic yeast infections—however they have come up with a number of treatment regimes that can help resolve the issue for most people. 

While there’s limited research on the topic, some people with chronic yeast infections also tend to develop vulva pain that outlasts the yeast infections themselves, so if you’re experiencing pain don’t wait to find out what’s causing it. A lot more research is needed, but there are a handful of theories as to why chronic yeast infections can lead to vulva pain, including some studies that support the theory that, in the simplest terms, ongoing chronic yeast infections or an extended untreated yeast infection can impact the nerves in the vulva. 

Partnered Sex

Let’s swing back to whether or not you can pass yeast infections on to a partner. Yes, it can be passed to a partner, but the likelihood of that happening depends on different factors. If you have a vulva (and a yeast infection) and your partner has a penis, there’s about a 15% chance of them getting a yeast infection after unprotected sex, and the odds are a bit higher for uncircumcised penises or for folks with diabetes. It’s unlikely to be transmitted the other way though—folks who have chronic yeast infections are unlikely to be getting it from a partner with a penis. That said, keep in mind that certain lubes, douches, soaps and other products you use before or during sex can make you more likely to get a yeast infection, especially if you’re prone to them.

For vulva-havers who have sex with other vulvas, some scientists theorize that the odds of getting a yeast infection are higher, while others believe there’s no evidence to back up this claim. If there’s anything I’ve learned from all the articles I’ve written, it’s that vulvas, queer people, and queer sex confuse the hell out of scientists. In lieu of any available science, my personal recommendation is to talk to the person or people you’re playing with so everyone can make informed decisions about their bodies and comfort levels—and this goes for pretty much all sexual activities. Keep in mind though that yeast infections can cause pain and inflammation, which can be worsened by friction, and that the inflammation can make you more prone to get tiny tears in the skin, making you more susceptible to contracting STIs. 

No One Chooses to Have Medical Problems

Through some kind of cultural conditioning our society has selected which health problems people are “allowed” and “not allowed” to have. We rally support around diseases like cancer, MS, and Alzheimer’s, but shame those diagnosed with STIs, mental health challenges, invisible illnesses, yeast infections, etc. 

Don’t believe me? Think about which conditions you could talk about at work, and it’s a pretty clear way to define which health problems we’re supposed to feel ashamed for having. It’s a ridiculous double standard, and it’s time for that to change.

I am so tired of people shaming other people’s bodies. Period. For any reason. It’s utterly exhausting to live in a culture that teaches people that we are supposed to feel so much shame and guilt over things none of us have any control over. Let’s stop treating people like they filled out a form and chose to have health problems—they didn’t. 

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