Vaginal candidiasis, also referred to as a yeast infection, is an infection of the vagina caused by an imbalance of Candida albicans, a type of fungal organism typically found in the mouth, digestive tract, skin, and the vagina. The organism is generally kept in balance by healthy immune systems, but if Candida albicans multiplies in the vagina and outnumbers other microorganisms, an infection may occur. If left untreated, vaginal candidiasis may cause permanent damage to the immune system.
The balance of Candida albicans in the vagina can be changed by certain medications, such as steroids, antibiotics, antihistamines, and high estrogen birth control pills. Vaginal candidiasis tends to be more prevalent in women with weakened immune systems from conditions like cancer, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or depression. Diabetes, pregnancy, and deficiencies in zinc, folate, vitamin B12, or iron can upset the balance of microorganisms in the vagina. Tight undergarments and allergies to ingredients in laundry detergent can also irritate the vagina and cause the infection.
The symptoms of vaginal candidiasis are often similar to sexually transmitted diseases. The infection usually causes abnormal vaginal discharge that can be milky or extremely thick, accompanied with intense vaginal itching or burning. The vulva may be red and sexual intercourse and urination can be painful. Men can potentially experience skin irritation of the penis if they have sexual contact with a woman with the infection.
To diagnose the condition and ensure it isn’t a sexually transmitted disease, a doctor will typically take a sample of the vaginal cell tissue. He or she will examine it under a microscope to see if there are excessive amounts of the Candida albicans organism. If so, the doctor will usually prescribe topical treatment containing antifungal ingredients such as clotrimazole, miconazole, butoconazole, or terconazole. If vaginal candidiasis reoccurs with the same symptoms in a patient, it can be treated with over-the-counter topical treatments without an additional doctor visit.
Oral antifungal medication, such as itraconazole or fluconazole, may be prescribed for infections that don’t respond to topical treatment. In certain chronic, reoccurring cases, the oral antifungal medications may be taken weekly to prevent the spreading of Candida albicans. This treatment method tends to be used under strict doctor supervision because the fungal organisms can potentially become immune to excessive amounts of antifungal properties.
Vaginal candidiasis is one of the more common infections in women with HIV. It can be an indicator that the condition is worsening and reaching more critical stages. As the immune system is slowly destroyed by the HIV, the body is unable to maintain the correct balance of Candida albicans and other healthy microorganisms. The infection often does not respond to treatment in serious HIV cases.