Are there dangers in not treating a yeast infection?

It’s a curious question: it presupposes that you know you have one. For the purposes of this article, I will deal solely with vaginal yeast infections.

So how do you know if you have a yeast infection? One way to tell is if you have the same symptoms as before when your doctor correctly diagnosed you. However, other conditions can masquerade as a yeast infection, even in people who have had it before. Urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, and bacterial vaginosis are conditions that are often confused with yeast infections.

The most common symptoms of a yeast infection are vaginal itching (inside or out) and vaginal discharge, which may be milky or have the consistency of cottage cheese. The most common reason women get these infections is from taking antibiotics for a different condition, such as a bladder or respiratory infection. Diabetes is also associated with frequent yeast infections: yeast likes sugar and grows especially well when blood sugar is high.

If you have taken antibiotics and have a yeast infection, do you have to treat it?

Not necessarily. If you are otherwise in good health, your body can often heal itself. Antibiotics kill the bad germs as well as the good germs. Once you stop the antibiotics and your normal “flora” (population of good germs) is restored, the yeast loses its edge, allowing your body to fight yeast overgrowth. If you can tolerate the itch long enough for this to happen, that’s perfectly acceptable.

However, if you must continue daily antibiotics for, say, a severe case of acne, your body may not have a chance to recover on its own. In that case, you may want to stop antibiotics for a while or forever and see your doctor about an alternative acne treatment.

Also, if you have a yeast infection that doesn’t resolve on its own (or with treatment), you should be tested for diabetes. Occasionally, if your blood sugar is elevated, the yeast can really take over and make you so miserable that you can’t possibly tolerate the symptoms.

Some people may not want to treat a yeast infection due to concerns about the use of chemicals on their bodies. This is a valid consideration. Probiotics can be helpful in restoring normal flora, which is really the essence of ridding your body of a fungal infection. There’s always some yeast around: they normally live in the colon without bothering a person, along with billions of other germs. Our skin is covered in germs, our mouth is full of germs, and the vagina has its own set of normal germs. The key is to keep the right germs in the right place.

The danger of not treating a yeast infection lies mainly in having a wrong diagnosis. I have seen many patients who assumed their symptoms were due to a yeast infection, only to find out they had a UTI or STD instead. In addition, the irritation caused by vaginal candidiasis can predispose to acquiring an STD. Just as an open wound on the hand is more likely to become infected than unbroken skin, the vagina is also more likely to become infected with a sexually transmitted disease if it is raw and sore.

STDs that can be confused with yeast infections include herpes, chlamydia, trichomonas, and gonorrhea. Bacterial vaginosis is usually not sexually transmitted, but it can cause similar symptoms.

Urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, and sexually transmitted diseases require different treatments than vaginal yeast infections, so getting the correct diagnosis is vital.

If you have vaginal itching or discharge that doesn’t go away on its own or with treatment (such as over-the-counter clotrimazole vaginal cream, used according to package directions), see your doctor. You do not want to be suffering from an STD without knowing it, or passing it on to your partner.

Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, MD