Yeast infection: Yuck-central to the average vagina owner. Discharge like milk curds, funky smell something akin to old toes floating in rotten vinegar, and an intense itch that you can’t actually itch because if you try, it hurts. Cool, huh?
When you’re talking about this fun experience, what you’re largely talking about is overgrowth of a specific type of yeast called Candida albicans, which is actually a fungus. Pretty gross.
Truth is, there’s probably a few of these little guys hanging around the average human vagina all the time and it’s no big deal, but too many of ’em and you’ve got a problem.
Of interest, Candida is kept at bay by another creature that you want hanging around in your vagina called, as a group, the lactobacilli. These guys don’t fight candida, they’re much more suave. They simply produce an acid (“lactic” acid…get it?) as part of their normal life cycle that subsequently keeps the vagina acidic. This makes things real tough for most other creatures, except for the odd Bear Grylls of the Candida world who eat acid for breakfast.
Yeast infections result when the acidity levels in the vagina drop. It’s hard to predict when and how the pH will change in that region of the world, but often it does.
Historically, yeast infections were easily treated with anti-fungal creams or a single pill of the drug fluconazole. But the “easy” part is going away. Increasingly, I’m seeing patients who have recurrent yeast infections despite the usual treatment.
Often, these patients have a history of heading to the doc for “that pill.” And often, docs (or the “provider”) just fire the pill at them and everyone calls it a visit. It’s quick for the patient, saves the doc time, everyone’s happy. Unfortunately, the happiest of all in this equation is the yeast.
Fluconazole works by blocking an enzyme. That enzyme facilitates reactions that create the yeast’s cell wall. With the drug around, their cell walls get floppy(er) and don’t hold together as well.
But that doesn’t mean the bug is dead. Fluconazole isn’t some flaming thunderbolt from Mt. Olympus that blasts yeasts back to the Elysian (bread) Fields. The drug is fungastatic, not fungicidal. The weakened yeast is then susceptible to other bugs our our immune systems. Like a mob boss of the pharmaceutical world. It doesn’t do the killing, it just arranges, eehh, ‘tings.
These days, fluconazole isn’t as tough as it used to be. It doesn’t work like it did, often not with the strength it had. So tossing this pill at a yeast infection is a bad idea. Real bad.
Certain types of yeasts make poofy bread and good beer and they keep Jewish people busy (some would say crazy) during Passover. So they’re not all bad. But it’s an organism that we could do without. Fungal infections, when they become systemic, have always been tough to treat; more so than bacterial. And systemic anti-fungals have always been tougher on the body than antibiotics.
Under these circumstances, the best approach to recurrent yeast infection is NEVER to just go get another pill. You should firmly request that your doctor not only get a wet prep (which is merely looking for the presence of yeasts on microscope slide), but also order a culture of the yeast should any grow on the prep. From that culture, not only can the species of yeast be determined, but it can also be tested for sensitivity to fluconazole and other anti-fungals to see if the right drug has been chosen.
Recurrent yeast infections are beatable, but not if you’re lazy about it. For reasons that most men can understand, yeasts really, really like the vagina. If you don’t like ’em there, you’ve got to put more than just a little effort into getting ’em out.