Inflammation of the vagina caused by infection with the candida fungus
Vaginal thrush affects many women at some point in their adult lives, most commonly at some time during the childbearing years, and can recur regularly. The condition develops when a fungus called Candida albicans, which can occur naturally in the vagina, grows more rapidly than usual. Vaginal thrush is not serious, but it may cause unpleasant itching of the vulva and vagina and a discharge. Candida infections may occur in other areas, such as the mouth (see Oral thrush) and around the anus.
The candida fungus is found in the vagina of about 1 in 5 women and does not usually cause disease. The growth of the fungus is suppressed by both the immune system and harmless bacteria that normally live in the vagina. If these bacteria are destroyed by antibiotics or spermicides, the fungus can multiply, which may lead to symptoms. Harmless bacteria in the vagina may also be destroyed as a result of changes in levels of female sex hormones. Such changes may occur during pregnancy or before periods or may be due to drugs that affect female sex hormone levels, such as the oral contraceptive pill. Vaginal thrush may also develop after having sexual intercourse with a partner who has a candida infection.
Women who have diabetes mellitus are more susceptible to vaginal thrush. Sometimes, stress can trigger an episode of the condition.
The symptoms usually develop gradually over several days and may include:
Intense irritation and itching of the vagina and vulva (see Vulvovaginitis).
Thick, white vaginal discharge that is cheesy in appearance.
Left untreated, vulvovaginitis may lead to redness and eventually cracking of the delicate skin of the vulva.
If you are confident that your symptoms are due to vaginal thrush because you have had the condition before, you can treat yourself with over-the-counter drugs. Antifungal drugs are readily available and include vaginal pessaries and creams or pills.
It is advisable not to have sexual intercourse for the next few days until your symptoms have cleared up. Your sexual partner should also be treated in order to avoid reinfection.
If you get vaginal thrush regularly, some simple measures can be taken to avoid the condition (see Preventing vaginal thrush). If you are not sure about the cause of your symptoms or if treatment with over-the-counter preparations does not help, you should consult your doctor.
Your doctor may diagnose thrush from the vaginal discharge. He or she will perform a pelvic examination and may take a swab from your vagina for examination. If vaginal thrush is diagnosed, your doctor may advise you on self-help measures or prescribe a stronger antifungal drug. Although treatment for vaginal thrush is usually successful, the condition tends to recur.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.