Watch out for the causes of thrush and, with sensible precautions, you can help yourself keep it at bay.
Vaginal thrush is not a dangerous condition. It does not even lead to serious complications if left untreated. But it can have devastating effects on women who have recurrent attacks.
The soreness, irritation and pain undermines not only their well-being but also their feeling of confidence. Also, the need to restrict sexual activity until the condition has cleared can lead to tensions and difficulties within a relationship, and these need patience and understanding to resolve.
What is thrush?
Thrush is a naturally present fungus found in the body. The commonest type is Candida albicans (foaming white), and the condition – sometimes referred to as candidiasis – can occur in other parts of the body as well as the vagina.
Candida albicans can exist in the body without doing any harm or producing any symptoms. Problems only arise when some factor precipitates an increase in growth. As the fungus multiplies, it disturbs the affected organ’s acid/alkaline balance and eventually produces irritation.
Women suffering from thrush are likely to be conscious of an intense itching of the vagina and vulva (the outer genital organs), probably accompanied by swelling and soreness of the vulva. However it is very common to have thrush without symptoms.
Many women also have the urge to pass water frequently, but may find it rather painful to do so. This is because urine, being acidic, produces a burning sensation as it comes into contact with the irritated vulva.
What are the causes?
It is not unusual for an attack of thrush to follow a course of antibiotic treatment which may have been prescribed for illness or infection. As well as killing harmful bacteria in the body, the antibiotics may also destroy the benign bacteria keeping the thrush under control.
During most of the month the vagina is slightly acidic, which helps prevent infections from occurring. Around the time of menstruation, ovulation, and just after a period, this balance alters as the alkaline level of the vagina rises. Thrush thrives in alkaline conditions – so, if you are susceptible, this is when you could be most at risk.
Stress, poor health and a bad diet can all be contributory factors to thrush.
Pregnancy and the pill
Thrush also thrives in a sugary environment, and is very common during pregnancy, when there is a natural increase in the glycogen or sugar content of the vagina. If too much sugar is produced without being converted into an acidic substance, the vagina loses its natural protection and provides an ideal breeding ground for thrush.
Although the link between the Pill and thrush is by no means conclusive, thrush does appear to occur more frequently in women taking oral contraceptives. The combined oestrogen and progestogen Pill works by copying many of the conditions of pregnancy and thereby produces ideal conditions for thrush.
Diabetes is a condition in which too much sugar is present in the bloodstream. If you suffer from recurrent thrush it is important that you should be properly tested for diabetes, as thrush may be a symptom.
Once both partners in a relationship have been infected, they can continue to re-infect each other. If you suffer from thrush, you will probably pass it on to your partner during sex. If you have treatment for the condition, but your partner does not, he may then re-infect you next time you make love. This is why it is vital for both of you to have treatment – even if one of you does not show any symptoms of thrush.
Milky-white patches on the tongue and inside the cheeks are tell-tale signs of oral thrush. Thrush can also thrive on the lungs, intestines, skin and nails, as well as in the vagina.
One reason why women are particularly prone to genital infections is the proximity of the vagina to both the anus and the urethra. The bowel is a good breeding ground for thrush and for bacteria which can infect the vagina unless scrupulous hygiene is observed.
When using toilet paper, always make sure you wipe yourself from front to back. Wash your genitals every day, and if you use a flannel, make sure that it is a clean one. Make sure, too, that your towels and flannels are only used by one person and be careful to change your underwear every day. Pants worn while you have thrush should be boiled separately to kill the fungus and prevent any chance of the infection reoccurring.
The vagina has its own fluid which keeps it healthy and clean. You should never use a vaginal deodorant or douche as this can make you dry and itchy, and increase any infection.
Similarly, bubble baths, antiseptics and strongly perfumed soaps should be avoided to prevent the condition.
Health and diet
Since a poor diet can be a contributory factor in thrush, cut down on fats and sugars found in cakes and biscuits.
Instead, eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, fibre, plus a reasonable amount of protein.
Thrush and warmth
Any woman who suffers from thrush is advised to try wearing cotton pants which absorb moisture and sweat, rather than man-made fibres which tend to encourage warm, damp conditions.
She should also wear stockings rather than tights so that air can circulate, keeping the area dry and cool.
A natural instinct when feeling sore and uncomfortable with thrush is to curl up in bed. Unfortunately, this is the wrong idea as the warmth actually encourages the organism to multiply.
Similarly, you may be tempted to soak in a hot bath to ease soreness from thrush. A cool shower is far better.
It is advisable to abstain from love-making until an attack of thrush has completely cleared. Thrush is easily transmitted through intercourse. Your partner may carry the thrush spores without showing any symptoms, and re-infect you again.
As thrush can develop in the mouth, oral sex should also be avoided during this time. Once you do resume love-making with your partner, use a condom for a while as an extra precaution.
Thrush in babies
Thrush can occur at any age. Even women who have never suffered from the condition themselves may have come across it in small babies.
It produces white specks – which look rather like milk – in patches on the inside of the cheeks and sometimes on the mouth, usually making it sore.
The condition is treated by painting the patches with a chemical dye called gentian violet, or by administering a suitable prescribed thrush medication. However, it is very common to have thrush without symptoms.
At the first sign of suspected thrush, you should seek medical advice, either from your own GP or from a special genitourinary clinic at a hospital. You do not need a doctor’s letter to be seen.
If you go to your GP, you will be given an internal examination and your doctor may want to take a sample of discharge from inside your vagina to assist in the diagnosis. Tests will then be carried out at a special clinic.
In most cases the doctor will prescribe anti-fungal pessaries and creams or vaginal gels which check the growth and destroy the infection. A less messy alternative is medicated tampons. The cream should be smeared around the vulva and perineum (the area between the vagina and anus) to kill the thrush. In addition your partner should apply the cream to his glans, under the foreskin and any itchy areas.
You may alternatively be prescribed a single, long-lasting pessary or a course of treatment, where a series of pessaries is inserted into the vagina. Oral tablets may be prescribed to treat thrush, especially if thrush is also present in the bowel.
Old-fashioned remedies for thrush include applying gentian violet, diluted lemon juice or vinegar to the affected area. Lactic acid is available in liquid form from chemists. When diluted with water it helps restore the vagina’s acidity.
Eating live, natural yogurt or applying yogurt to the affected area is a more recent home remedy, but only natural yogurt with a live acidophilus culture will be effective.
Salt baths are therapeutic as they help soothe and heal inflamed skin. Such remedies are especially valuable to those with recurrent thrush.