Ladies, we need to talk about your undercarriage. Granted, it is not the most glamorous topic, but in the era of tight-fitting workout pants and high-intensity, sweat-inducing exercise, we need to get real about yeast infections. According to Womenshealth.gov, three out of four women will get a yeast infection at some point in their lives. Yeast infections typically present with itching, irritation, pain during intercourse, painful urination, rashes, vaginal odor and discomfort, and white, lumpy discharge.
Remember what I said about not being glamorous?
While yeast infections are typically easy to treat, they are pretty inconvenient, not to mention highly uncomfortable, so can we agree it would be better if we could prevent them from happening in the first place?
POPSUGAR talked with Dr. Catherine Holt, an OB/GYN in Frisco, TX, to find out ways we can keep our vaginas healthier.
Dr. Holt explained that a yeast infection occurs when there is an imbalance in the pH balance of the vagina. Every vagina has bacteria and yeast; it's the prevalence of good vs. bad bacteria and yeast that keeps us infection free. Keep in mind the vagina is an open system, meaning that anything that penetrates into the vagina can affect its pH. That's why things like recent intercourse and internal douching have a direct effect on our internal balance.
Other factors include hormone changes related to birth control and the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, antibiotic use (because it can kill the good bacteria in addition to the bad), chronic steroid treatments, and certain medical conditions like HIV, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Exercise, lifestyle, and hygiene also play a part in our overall health.
Assuming that you are an otherwise healthy, active individual, what can you to do decrease your yeast infection vulnerability? Here is some advice, straight from a professional.
1. Don't Wear a Wet Bathing Suit All Day
According to Dr. Holt, our genitals are moist environments that attract yeast and bacteria. The more moisture, the greater the opportunity to change our internal pH balance. Sweating while working out, or even swimming or sitting in a hot tub, can affect the amount of moisture surrounding the vagina.
More important than the wet, though, is the time we allow it to linger. Dr. Holt gave an example of going swimming and then sitting in your damp bathing suit for an elongated time afterward. Any prolonged exposure to increased moisture can create an opportunity for bad yeast and bacteria to grow.
2. Invest in Some Moisture-Wicking Clothes
Unless you are '80s-old-school and rocking some sweatpants, you are likely wearing tight-fitting workout pants made from some synthetic material. Cranking your way through a high-intensity interval class may feel good and get the fitness results you want, but sitting in sweaty capri pants while you run errands afterward isn't doing your genital area any favors.
Swamp crotch is a no-no when trying to prevent a yeast infection. What is the solution? Dr. Holt suggested that in addition to wearing clothes that "wick" moisture away, it is good practice to bring a clean and dry set of clothing and change into it as soon as you complete your activity. Anything that will help decrease the moisture down south is a positive step in yeast infection prevention.
3. Choose Cotton Underwear — or None at All
If sweaty pants are enough to create a moisture uptick, think about a piece of clothing that is even more intimate. Dr. Holt tells her patients to select cotton underwear if possible, as cotton is more breathable than synthetics and even silk or satin underwear.
Dr. Holt noted that thongs seem to exacerbate the moisture issue, probably due their even closer fit. If her patients are prone to yeast infections and finding daytime moisture an issue, Dr. Holt will suggest sleeping without underwear to allow the region to breathe. I went workout-commando years ago, as much to prevent that pesky pantyline as much as anything else. Now there's a health reason? I knew I was right.
4. Trade Your Deodorizing Products For a Probiotic
Dr. Holt shared that products like scented sprays are mostly hygiene related and do not have a preventative effect. Same goes for most powders or other topicals — these products can be irritating for some, so Dr. Holt and her colleagues tend to recommend those for areas other than the groin for sweat and odor control. Internal douches are a big negative, as they completely wash out the vagina and create an environment where there is no controlling whether good bacteria and yeast will repopulate faster than the bad kind.
Instead of these products, Dr. Holt suggested taking a probiotic, especially for women susceptible to recurrent infections. Probiotics promote the growth and sustained presence of good bacteria and can be ingested through particular yogurts or in pill/gummy/powder form. According to Dr. Holt, anything that keeps you one step ahead in the game for colon and vaginal health is a good thing.
5. Make Sure You Wipe the Right Way, Every Time
As Dr. Holt explained, it's just general good practice to prevent several types of infections, including yeast and bladder, as it prevents rectal bacteria from entering the vaginal area. Even if you've done it the other way all your life, it's not too late to change.
6. Select the Right Intimacy Tools
Sex during a yeast infection can be very painful and can be a causation for some due to the resulting change in internal pH. Condoms in general can affect pH (remember, penetration into the vagina = potential for pH change, bacteria, or yeast introduction). Condoms with spermicide have a similar effect to douching, Dr. Holt noted, so if you are prone to yeast infections, this may be a factor you haven't considered.
7. Workshop Your Hormonal Birth Control
Whether you use the pill, IUDs, or other hormone-based contraception, Dr. Holt explained that most of these methods will affect your vaginal pH, especially when you are starting a new method. The best thing you can do, she said, is to work with your physician to find a product that works best for you.
8. If All Else Fails, Talk to Your Doctor
This same concept of partnering with your doctor applies to self-diagnosing and self-treating yeast infections. Dr. Holt cautioned that while there are many over-the-counter products available for treating yeast infections, it is a good idea to see a doctor if self-treatment fails or you find yourself with recurrent infections. Something else could be going on, she said, and it only takes a short trip to your physician and simple lab test to find out what it might be.
With this, as with all medical concerns, if in doubt, ask a professional. It's your vagina, so let's keep it in the best shape possible, shall we?