Even if you haven’t had a vaginal yeast infection before, you must have heard about how it can be a real bother. After all, 75 percent of women get it at least once in their lives and some very unfortunate women even have it multiple times. So how can you try and prevent it from happening to you?

Why a vaginal yeast infection occurs

“The vagina contains a balanced mix of bacteria and yeast. In normal circumstances, there is a large population of ‘good’ bacteria that prevents the overgrowth of yeast. Then there’s also yeast that causes vaginal infections. Yeast infections often occur when this balanced mix of bacteria and yeast gets disrupted,” says Dr Quek Swee Chong, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Gleneagles Hospital.

“This allows the yeast to overgrow and penetrate into the deeper layers of the vagina.”

He adds that some other common causes of vaginal yeast infections include antibiotic use (because broad-spectrum antibiotics kill off even healthy bacteria but not yeast, therefore allowing candida to overgrow), pregnancy (because pregnant women tend to have altered immunity and hormone levels) and impaired immunity (such as when someone has the HIV virus).

The signs and symptoms

If you have a vaginal yeast infection, you’re sure to know that something is off, because things won’t exactly be very comfortable.

“There will be intense itching in the vagina and the vulva. This may be accompanied by a burning sensation during intercourse or while urinating. The skin around the vagina may also become red, swollen or develop small fissures, resulting in soreness,” says Dr Quek.

He points out that you will probably also have a thick, white vaginal discharge with the appearance of cottage cheese or tofu curd. The discharge is usually odour-free and may appear in clumps, but sometimes it can instead be watery.

It’s fairly easy to treat

According to Dr Quek, a diagnosis of the infection is fairly straightforward. Your doctor may be able to make the diagnosis just by hearing about your symptoms or checking out the appearance of the skin around the vulva or vaginal discharge.

However, in more severe cases or if the episodes are recurrent, they will obtain a vaginal swab to send for testing. This is to confirm the presence of yeast and the type of yeast infection occurring. A swab test is especially important to do if you suffer from frequent episodes of the infection.

The good news is that this is something fairly easy to treat and there are two treatment types available: vaginal therapy and oral therapy.

“There are a number of over-the-counter topical preparations available without prescription. However, you should consult a doctor if there is no improvement after using these medicines,” says Dr Quek.

“Typically, your doctor would prescribe a short course of vaginal pessaries or creams to be administered for four to seven days. An alternative would be a single dose of an oral anti-fungal agent known as fluconazole (Diflucan).”

Should you suffer from recurrent infections, you’ll be prescribed a longer course of vaginal or oral therapy. This may include the use of oral probiotics to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the vagina.

Prevent an infection by doing these things

But of course, prevention is better than cure, so it’s better to take precautions and lower your chances of a vaginal yeast infection. Dr Quek recommends using these six preventive measures:

1. Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily, such as for colds or other viral infection

2. Don’t wear tight-fitting undergarments, especially those made from synthetic materials. Use breathable cotton underwear or underwear that has a cotton crotch as much as possible

3. Don’t douche. The vagina does not need to be douched as it cleans itself. Douching and vaginal sprays can wash away the normal healthy bacteria that protect you from infection

4. Don’t remain in your wet gym clothes or swimwear for long periods of time

5. Don’t use scented feminine hygiene products like bubble baths, soaps, tampons and pads

6. Don’t stay in hot tubs or take extra hot baths. This boost in body temperature can increase your chances of getting an infection