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Recurrent Yeast Infections Are the Worst—Here’s How to Handle Them

If you deal with recurrent yeast infections, you’ve probably gotten your response down to an art. At the first sign of yet another yeast infection, you may hightail it to your local drugstore, cruise through that aisle, and search for a yeast infection treatment that will make your symptoms disappear ASAP. Then you enjoy what yeast-infection-free time you have left before another one inevitably hits.

But did you know that you don’t just have to accept a life of chronic yeast infections? Getting four or more yeast infections a year is actually a sign that you might benefit from a different kind of treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic. So before you just accept a lifetime of creams and suppositories, you should know that it doesn’t have to be like this. Keep reading to learn why you may be dealing with recurrent yeast infections, plus how to get some much-needed relief.

First, you need to understand what a yeast infection is.

A yeast infection typically happens when a fungus called Candida albicans overgrows in your vagina and causes severe itchiness and other annoying symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Before you get grossed out, remember that it’s totally natural to have some Candida albicans in your vagina! Lactobacillus bacteria produce acid to prevent an overgrowth of this yeast and generally help keep your vagina happy and healthy. It’s only when this yeast grows too much that you can begin to have an issue.

With that in mind, there’s also the possibility of “complicated” yeast infections for a variety of reasons. According to the Mayo Clinic, your yeast infection might be complicated if you have four or more yeast infections in a year (meaning you have recurrent yeast infections), if it’s caused by a different type of fungus (instead of Candida albicans), if you’re pregnant, if you have uncontrolled diabetes, or if your immune system is weakened by a condition such as HIV.

In case you need a refresher, these are the symptoms of a yeast infection.

According to the Mayo Clinic, yeast infection symptoms usually range from mild to moderate and include:

Itching and irritation in your vagina and around your vulva

Burning when you pee

Burning during sex

Redness and swelling of your vulva

Vaginal pain and soreness

Thick, white, odor-free vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese

Watery vaginal discharge

If you have a complicated yeast infection—potentially including chronic yeast infections—your symptoms might be more severe and include things like extensive redness,

swelling, and itching that can lead to tears, cracks, or sores on your vulva.What causes yeast infections?

If something disrupts the balance of your vagina’s pH, yeast can get out of control and cause an infection, Sherry A. Ross, M.D., a women’s health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., tells SELF.

There are a few things that can disrupt that balance and cause a yeast infection, including:

Antibiotics: Antibiotic use is a huge one, since it can kill the healthy bacteria in your vagina that help to ward off infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Scented products: In some cases, a new soap or laundry detergent with fragrance can set you up for a yeast infection by disrupting your natural pH balance. For similar reasons, you should keep douches of all forms away from your vagina: Trying to “clean” inside of yourself can promote pH disruption and is seriously unnecessary.

Hanging around in damp clothes: Wearing sweaty workout clothes or a wet bathing suit for too long can also contribute to yeast infections. Yeast loves warm, moist environments, and your workout gear or a wet bathing suit can trap heat and sweat, allowing yeast to flourish, Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells SELF.

High estrogen levels: Having elevated estrogen levels due to pregnancy, taking high-estrogen birth control pills, or using estrogen hormone therapy can increase your risk of yeast infections. Excess estrogen can promote higher levels of glycogen (a stored form of glucose, also known as sugar) in the vagina. Yeast loves sugar, Dr. Greves explains, which is extremely relatable and also why people with diabetes who have trouble controlling their blood sugar levels are often at a higher risk of getting yeast infections.

Having sex: Unfortunately, having sex can also promote yeast infections, although yeast infections aren’t considered a sexually transmitted infection, the Mayo Clinic notes.

A weak immune system: Having lowered immunity makes you more susceptible to getting yeast infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Here’s when you should see a doctor.

First, in general, you should see a doctor if this is your first time experiencing yeast infection symptoms, if you’re not sure you have a yeast infection, or if your symptoms aren’t going away with the typical over-the-counter antifungal vaginal creams or suppositories that have treated your yeast infections in the past, per the Mayo Clinic.