What is a yeast infection?
If you have a vagina, there’s a solid chance you’ve had a yeast infection. Around 75% of women experience at least one yeast infection at some point in their lives. Because these itchy, annoying episodes are so common, it’s easy to assume that all sensations resembling yeast infection symptoms are just that.
However, while many other vaginal conditions can appear to be caused by yeast, they’re sometimes not. Sometimes, misdiagnosing a yeast infection can be quite dangerous to your health because you’re consequently ignoring a more serious problem.
Learn more about which medical conditions have similar symptoms and when they might be mistaken for a common yeast infection.
It may surprise you to know that there’s supposed to be yeast in your vagina. Microorganisms inside the vagina, as well as the interior and exterior parts of the vulva, exist in a delicate balance. If there’s an overgrowth of yeast, it’s called "vulvovaginal candidiasis".
This same kind of yeast can affect other parts of your body, too, but it usually lives in the body on the skin without causing an infection. Yeast usually only grows out of control when the vaginal flora — the naturally occurring bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms — becomes imbalanced or when your immune system is weak.
It’s relatively easy to develop a vaginal yeast infection under the following conditions:
- You’re pregnant
- You take birth control pills containing estrogen
- You have diabetes
- You’re taking medication that suppresses your immune system
- You’ve just finished a course of antibiotics
- You wear underwear that isn’t 100% cotton
What are common yeast infection symptoms?
Yeast infections can range from being mild to being severely itchy and painful. You may notice the following symptoms:
What are other conditions that mimic a yeast infection?
You’ve probably noticed that the symptoms of a yeast infection are non-specific. This means that while a yeast infection could be the cause of your symptoms, it is wise to go to a doctor for a test if you’ve never had this type of issue before. Learn more about the most common medical conditions that can be easily mistaken for yeast infections.
Sexually transmitted infections
If you’ve recently engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse, any strange symptoms following your encounter warrant a trip to the doctor. A lot of STIs have similar symptoms: For example, trichomoniasis, or “trich”, can cause itching, irritated skin, painful sex, and a burning sensation when you urinate. Herpes can cause sores, blisters, and itchy red spots around the vulva and vaginal opening.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
This bacterial infection of the vagina is similar to a yeast infection, but the culprit here is bacteria that already live in the vagina. You might experience odd-looking discharge that can be green, white, or clear, and you'll probably experience itching and burning as well.
You might notice a distinct smell if you have a bacterial infection — many people think a vagina suffering from bacterial vaginosis smells like fish — and this usually distinguishes this condition from yeast. Sometimes, though, this symptom isn’t present and it can be almost impossible to tell the difference between BV and a yeast infection.
If you’re dealing with redness, rashes, sores, and itching, you may be having an allergic reaction, or what’s called contact dermatitis, to a soap, detergent, or fragrance you’re using in that area. First, you should never wash your vagina with soap: It’s perfectly capable of cleaning itself. Second, take a break from any products you use on a regular basis and see if your problem clears up.
If avoiding harsh detergents, chemicals, and fragrances helps, you’ll want to switch to hypoallergenic, fragrance-free products that don’t irritate this sensitive area.
If you’re still having symptoms later, don’t hesitate to visit your doctor and discuss your next steps.
Eczema and psoriasis are two examples of skin conditions that can cause uncomfortable vulvar and vaginal symptoms. Eczema may itch and cause thick skin on the vulva, while psoriasis may look like pink or red patches of skin without the scales that usually define this condition. These conditions often look different on the vulva because the skin in these areas is more moist, sensitive, and delicate than the skin on other parts of your body.
Burning during urination is the classic symptom of UTI, but it can happen during a yeast infection, too: Sometimes, the tissues around the vagina are so inflamed that urine stings or burns.
UTIs typically have more severe symptoms that you can’t mistake for something else, such as bladder pain, fever, and chills, but they also often have minor symptoms or none at all. Don’t delay in getting tested for a UTI if you think this may be the cause. An untreated UTI can lead to serious bladder and kidney issues.
It’s common for even trained practitioners to misdiagnose vulvovaginal conditions due to their shared symptoms. Discharge, itching, and burning can accompany several conditions, and you may need to go to your doctor for testing to determine the exact cause of your troubles. It’s important to test for pH to determine whether there’s even an infection in the first place — or if your issue could be an allergy, autoimmune condition, or something else. Most healthy vaginas have a slightly acidic pH of around 3.5 to 4.5.
If you’ve had a yeast infection before, you may think you know yeast infection symptoms when they occur again — but if your usual over-the-counter treatment isn’t working, it’s time to consider another cause. Get in touch with your doctor if you have any concerns about your condition and be sure to schedule a thorough evaluation if you have more serious symptoms.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
ACP Internist: "Vulvovaginal disorders common but commonly misdiagnosed."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Candidiasis."
Cleveland Clinic: "Herpes Simplex," "Itching Down There Isn't Always a Yeast Infection," "Trichomoniasis."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Managing common vulvar skin conditions."
University of Iowa: "Contact dermatitis of the vulva," "Vulvar skin care guidelines."
Mayo Clinic: "Bacterial vaginosis," "Urinary tract infection (UTI)," "Yeast infection (vaginal)." Planned Parenthood: "What is a yeast infection?"
UNC Health Talk: "What's the difference between a yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis?"
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