Is It A Yeast Infection Or Something Else? How To Know When To See A Doctor

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: how to know whether it's a yeast infection — or something else.

Q: I just got what I think is a yeast infection. I’ve only ever had one before, and it was a while ago so I’m not sure. I’m feeling itchy and not great, and I know how I treated my yeast infection last time, with an over-the-counter cream. Should I assume this is a yeast infection and use that, or go to the doctor to make sure I’m right about my diagnosis? I mean, what if it’s something more dangerous that has a similar feel?

A: If you’re feeling not great in your nether regions, your vagina is trying to tell you she needs assistance! The problem is, she doesn’t speak English (or actually any known language), and so it can sometimes be a struggle to figure out what the f$%k she needs to feel better. This can be particularly stressful when you’re not sure if what’s going on is a slight imbalance that will revert itself promptly or something potentially dangerous that warrants medical attention. Here's what you need to know about identifying a yeast infection — and how to tell when it might be something more.

What Does A Yeast Infection Feel Like?

There are two main symptoms of a yeast infection. First off, your vagina might itch. The itch can be in your labia (your vaginal lips), as well as inside your vagina. In addition, your normal vaginal discharge will change consistency and color. Specifically, it will look like and have the consistency of cottage cheese — white and clumpy. Finally, some people feel burning in their vaginas, as well as pain during sex or urination.

Yeast infections happen. Your vagina is a badass, but it also has a delicate pH balance, which is maintained by a bunch of different bacteria. Some of this bacteria is candida, the bacteria that causes yeast infection. You only get a yeast infection when this bacteria takes over, and that only happens when your vaginal pH gets too basic.

How Can I Cure A Yeast Infection?

Yeast infections are luckily easy to kick. Over-the-counter remedies include creams to help with the itching and antifungal suppositories that you put up your vagina to cure yourself. If you’re more into home remedies, you can try yogurt and garlic, apple cider vinegar, or boric acid suppositories. And, if you’re really not able to get rid of it, you can ask your doctor for a one-day antibiotic pill, which will get you cleared up in a hurry.

How Do I Know For Sure It’s A Yeast Infection?

Some people get chronic yeast infections (yes, a vagina is hard to own sometimes) and are so familiar with the symptoms they just know when they have one. But if you’re less used to it, or it’s your first one and you’re wondering what the hell is going on, things may be more confusing.

Enter the yeast infection test! That’s right, it exists, and it’s over the counter. You can also go to your doctor to get your vaginal secretions evaluated. If you test positive for a yeast infection, over-the-counter remedies should clear it up. If they don't, that could mean you're also dealing with something more.

What Else Could It Be?

What if your vagina is itchy, your discharge is different than usual, or you start experiencing pain when you pee or have sex (all symptoms of a yeast infection), but your home test shows it's not a yeast infection? There are a bunch of other things that can cause these symptoms. Unfortunately, all of these require going to the doctor to check out, because they don't have home tests, and most also require medications to clear up. Let’s learn about them!

One note about vaginal discharge. It changes throughout your menstrual cycle, and that’s totally normal. It can range from no color at all to a milky white, and the amount can also change during your cycle — for instance, most people discharge more when they’re ovulating, and of course, when they’re turned on! So if the only symptom you have is more discharge than usual, you probably don’t need to panic.

OK, now let's learn about the other things that itchiness and unusual discharge might be.

1. Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (or BV for short) is similar to yeast infection insofar as they both occur when your vagina is too basic and as a result some naturally occurring vaginal bacteria gets way overgrown. BV can make your vagina itchy, just like a yeast infection, but the ways it messes with your discharge is a bit different — instead of the white clumpy discharge you get with candida overgrowth, with BV your discharge will be thin, gray or white colored, and will smell fishy.

When To Go To The Doctor: BV often goes away on its own, but if it doesn’t, talk to your doctor. She’ll give you medication to help get you rebalanced and itch-free. It's easy to get BV confused with a yeast infection, so if you've been using anti-fungal creams and it isn't working, you should go to the doctor and see if BV might be the culprit instead.

2. Trichomoniasis

You probably haven’t heard of it, but trichomoniasis is a very tiny parasite that you can get through sexual intercourse. Most people who are infected don’t have symptoms, but if you do it will include an itchy vagina, vaginal discharge that is smelly, frothy, foamy, and either yellow or gray-green in color, and painful urination.

When To Go To The Doctor: If you have these symptoms, go to your doctor to get tested for trichomoniasis. She’ll give you an antibiotic and you’ll be set! You’ll also want to get your sexual partner(s) treated, so they don’t just go ahead re-infecting you the moment you’re parasite-free.

3. Human Papillomavirus

Another sexually transmitted infection that can be the culprit of itchiness is human papillomavirus (or HPV for short). There are many strains of HPV. Some cause genital warts, and others are potentially cancerous. If you have a strain that causes warts, your primary symptom will be, well, genital warts. However, some people experience other symptoms along with the warts, including itching, vaginal discharge, and even bleeding and burning. If you have a cancerous strain, that doesn’t mean you're going to get cervical cancer — not by a long shot actually. But if you do end up with this type of cancer, your discharge will be watery, smell bad, and be bloody or brown in color.

When To Go To The Doctor: If you notice a wart in your genital region, it’s a good idea to see your doctor to get checked out, and she can remove it for you. Your doctor may also tell you that you have this infection, because she checks for it during your routine pap smears (this is also how she monitors any potential cervical cancer so you can stop it before it starts). While there’s no cure for HPV, most of the time your body will get rid of it on its own — so what medications can’t do, your body most likely will! If you do test positive for cervical cancer, your doctor will work with you to get it into remission.

4. Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that’s sexually transmitted. Symptoms include experiencing more vaginal discharge than usual, vaginal itching and burning, pain during sex, and painful urination.

When To Go To The Doctor: Luckily, chlamydia is treatable with antibiotics. So if this sounds like you, or you get a call from a lover saying s/he’s been diagnosed with this sexually transmitted infection, go to your clinic to get treatment — and make sure to get your lover(s) treated too.

5. Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is another sexually transmitted bacterial infection. If you experience symptoms, they will include yellow vaginal discharge and vaginal itching, burning, or redness. This pesky infection can also cause pain when peeing or having sex.

When To Go To The Doctor: You’ll need to get treated for gonorrhea with antibiotics, and your sexual partners will as well. However, there’s one wrinkle: some strains have become resistant, which has made treatment more difficult in certain cases.

6. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, is a bacterial infection that occurs in your reproductive organs. The bacteria usually gets there through sexual transmission, like chlamydia or gonorrhea, but it can also hitch a ride through other things like unclean IUD insertion. Some people don’t experience PID symptoms, but if you do, it can hurt a lot in your pelvic area, you can bleed between periods, and you can get heavy discharge that smells not good.

When To Go To The Doctor: PID can be treated with antibiotics. So go to your doctor to get relief from the pelvic pain.

The Bottom Line

When your vagina is feeling not her best, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities of what could possibly be going wrong. Figuring out what the problem actually is is often way harder than fixing it. Yes, you can use an at-home test to detect for a yeast infection, but the most important thing for anyone with a vagina is to find a gynecologist who you like and who is pretty available, so that when you feel that first tickle or notice that weird discharge, you can get it treated ASAP.

Want more women's health coverage? Check out Bustle's new podcast, Honestly Though, which tackles all the questions you're afraid to ask.

Images: Bustle, Lisa Bass, Giphy