An overgrowth of yeast is one of the most common causes of irritation down there — in fact, an estimated three out of four women will have a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their lives. While candida albicans is the most likely culprit, there are other fungi that can be present and more difficult to treat. That said, as a practicing gynecologist, I believe it's perfectly reasonable to try to find relief from a yeast infection at home before making an appointment with your doctor. First, you should know the risks and just how long you should wait for home remedies to work.
What Are the Symptoms of a Yeast Infection?
The hallmark of yeast is usually severe itching, which often gets worse and worse over a matter of days. This can be accompanied by thick, cottage-cheese-like discharge, but it's possible to have a yeast infection without significant discharge. Symptoms usually start at the opening of the vagina and expand out to the sides of the vulva and even down toward the anus. Swelling and pain can occur as the infection worsens.
Sometimes the itching and infection can be so intense that it causes the skin to break or bumps and lesions to arise. Many of my patients see lesions or skin breaks and automatically think it must be an STI like herpes. Though that's possible, yeast can sometimes produce similar symptoms. I wish there were a definitive way to tell the difference between the two, but there isn't. If the skin lesions are accompanied by a thick, white discharge, yeast may be the cause, but as I already mentioned, yeast can be present even without discharge.
The Best Home Remedies For Treating a Yeast Infection
The most effective treatment for a suspected yeast infection is an over-the-counter antifungal medication. I personally prefer three-day or seven-day vaginal treatments over those touted to clear up an infection in one day, just based on my decade of experience treating patients. Be warned that these medications can sometimes burn — many antifungal preparations contain alcohol, which, coupled with broken skin, can be painful. Your symptoms should start to improve by the second or third day, but always finish the entire course of medication to ensure the infection is properly treated.
If you're looking for a more natural treatment, you can try coconut oil to soothe the external vulva. Coconut oil has antifungal properties and is very moisturizing. I also like boric acid suppositories for treatment and prevention of yeast. When used properly, these vaginal suppositories can reset the proper acidic pH of the vagina and treat or prevent both yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. Proper, careful use is very important, and the suppositories need to be kept out of reach of children or small pets since they're toxic if swallowed.
To be clear, there's no scientific evidence to support putting anything else in your vagina — garlic, yogurt, herbs, apple cider vinegar — and in some cases, doing so can even be harmful.
How Long Should You Wait Before Seeing a Doctor?
If your symptoms don't improve within two to three days of at-home treatment, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor. While a yeast infection isn't dangerous, it can increase your risk for other dangerous infections. Tears in the skin that can happen with a prolonged or untreated yeast infection can make contracting a sexually transmitted infection much more likely.
Your doctor can rule out other types of infection and provide more effective, prescription treatments. If yeast infections are a recurring issue, they can also help you identify lifestyle or behavioral changes that could help reduce your risk. Either way, it's a conversation worth having.