What is thrush?
Thrush is a common yeast infection that can affect men and women. Although it's relatively harmless, thrush can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and may keep coming back despite repeated treatments.
Thrush can affect several areas of the body, including the armpits, the groin, and the mouth, although it's far more common in the genital area. While thrush is not technically classed as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), it is possible for thrush to be caused by and passed on through sexual intercourse.
What are the symptoms of thrush?
You may notice a white discharge with a thrush infection in the genitals. It's odourless and has a cottage-cheese-like texture. You'll also experience itching, irritation, and a stinging sensation during sexual intercourse or when urinating. Men may struggle to pull the foreskin back.
Anyone with oral thrush will notice a thick, white coating on top of the tongue. This may also cause bad breath and an unpleasant taste. On other body parts, thrush manifests as a red, itchy rash that scales over with a white or yellow discharge.
What causes thrush?
Humans carry certain types of yeast called Candida. They're present on the skin's surface and throughout the intestinal tracts and are entirely harmless. Candida is usually regulated by the immune system or by competing microorganisms.
But certain external factors can upset this natural balance, allowing the Candida to grow unchecked, leading to a thrush infection.
Change in diet
Understandably, consuming foods which contain yeast or sugar can aggravate thrush and should be avoided. Alcoholic drinks, such as beer and wine, often contain both yeast and sugar, making them ill-advised if a bout of thrush is something you wish to prevent.
There is little evidence to suggest that eating pro-biotic yoghurt affects thrush infections.
The job of antibiotics is to eliminate bacteria which is causing an infection. However, it is not uncommon for antibiotics to kill healthy bacteria, which help keep candida infections at bay.
It's important to note that you should not stop taking antibiotics unless your doctor has informed you that it is safe. For more information, see our article about the importance of finishing your antibiotics.
It is plausible for stress to increase your risk of thrush indirectly. Persistent stress can adversely affect your immune system, reducing your body's ability to fight the invading fungus. Stress affects everyone differently and should be discussed with your doctor, especially if your stress is affecting your health.
A weakened immune system resulting from illnesses such as HIV, cancer or diabetes can also put you at significant risk of developing thrush.
The weakened immune system affects the bacteria's ability to regulate the fungus, which can result in uncontrolled and exponential growth of candida yeast.
The levels of hormones fluctuate and can change due to pregnancy, breastfeeding or the different stages of menopause.
These changes in hormonal levels can affect the natural bacteria in the vagina, allowing the natural fungus to grow uncontested and cause an infection.
Corticosteroids and some oral contraceptive pills can increase the risk of developing thrush.
Similarly to antibiotics, corticosteroids, such as those found in preventer inhalers, can disrupt the careful balance of oral bacteria, putting you at an increased risk of getting oral thrush. If you are taking a corticosteroid inhaler, you may be advised by your doctor or asthma nurse to rinse your mouth out with water after each use of your preventer inhaler.
As we've previously discussed, oral contraceptives contain hormones that can affect the healthy bacteria in the vagina and raise the risk of thrush in women. If you are concerned that your choice of contraceptive is causing thrush, speak to your doctor about alternative contraceptive methods which may decrease your chances of getting a vaginal yeast infection.
Soaps, shower gels and perfumes; these scented products can all upset the precarious pH balance of the vagina, which can increase the risk of vaginal thrush. You should refrain from using scented or perfumed products around your genitals.
Opt instead for unperfumed soaps or emollients to wash the area around the vagina (vulva). Many feminine washing products are available that are designed to not interfere with the naturally acidic pH balance.
Sanitary towels and tampons should also be changed regularly to prevent adversely affecting the pH of the vagina.
It's important to emphasise that thrush is not categorised as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). However, that doesn't mean that sexual activity cannot cause or increase the risk of thrush.
Sexual intercourse can cause thrush, as your partner's fingers or penis can introduce bacteria to the vagina and put the careful bacterial ecosystem off kilter. Moreover, thrush infections can be transmitted through intercourse or the use of sex toys.
While treating vaginal or penile thrush, you should abstain from sex until your infection has completely cleared up. This can reduce the risk of passing the infection on to your partner, who may be able to pass it later back to you.
Additionally, some treatments for vaginal or penile thrush can damage condoms or reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptive pills.
Regularly wearing tight underwear or wetsuits provides the perfect conditions for candida fungus to grow.
Fungus thrives in these warm, damp environments, so it's advisable to keep your nether regions dry and cool by wearing breathable underwear made from cotton.
How can I avoid getting thrush again?
Making just a few changes to your daily routines and habits will significantly reduce your chances of recurring thrush.
Avoiding stress wherever you can and maintaining a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly and including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet are surefire ways of keeping your immune system ready to fight off infections.
Should I visit my GP if I get thrush?
In most instances, a visit to your local pharmacy or an online consultation with a pharmacist is enough, especially when it comes to isolated cases in otherwise healthy adults.
However, you should visit a GP if:
- This is your first case of thrush
- You're over 60 or under 16
- The thrush keeps coming back, or you experience two instances within six months.
- Your thrush treatment hasn't worked
- You're pregnant or suspect pregnancy
- You have a weakened immune system due to other health issues.
Although it has no serious long-term health effects, recurring thrush can be annoying, embarrassing, and stressful.
Recurring thrush is classed as four cases within one year. Again, thrush itself is relatively harmless, but it may be a symptom of a more severe and undiagnosed condition, including diabetes. If this happens to you, visit a GP.
If the GP finds no medical reason for recurring thrush, it might be down to a few lifestyle choices. For example, taking more baths than showers can lead to thrush, as can some perfumed soaps - especially when used on or around the genitals.
How is thrush treated?
Thrush is relatively simple to treat with antifungals, available as topical creams or tablets. Vaginal thrush is sometimes treated with a pessary inserted into the vagina. Thrush treatments are available from the high street and online pharmacies.
If you're embarrassed about discussing the symptoms, ask to speak to a pharmacist in a quiet area away from other customers. Alternatively, online pharmacy services, such as Prescription Doctor, make it easy to order the medicine you need online and have it delivered in discreet, plain packaging. You can buy thrush treatments online today and receive them as soon as tomorrow.
Most cases of thrush clear up within a week following one course of treatment. There's usually no need for any follow-up appointments or check-ups.