We normally associate yeast with bread and beer, but a strain of yeast fungus called candida albicans lives quite happily in our bowels, vagina and on the skin and we usually don't have any trouble from it.
It's part of the wonderfully named intestinal flora - bacteria and other organisms - that we share our bodies with. Flora is a good analogy...think of your body as a garden where many varieties of plants and bugs live. Sometimes weeds can rear their ugly heads, and if we don't look after the garden, those varmints will just take over.
Candida can do this inside our bodies if our immune system is a bit down. It's then known as vaginal candidiasis, monilia and usually referred to as thrush.
Chances are you've had thrush because it is very common. It's not life threatening but it's extremely unpleasant when you do have it. Symptoms of thrush range from vaginal itching and soreness, stinging wee, and a white or yellowish discharge. Professor Judith Berman from the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development at the University of Minnesota says the pill and diet can affect the natural balance of the body and cause thrush.
"The gut and the vagina are ecological systems that are in a balance. Many organisms grow there and candida is just one of them. Candida grows well on sugar and diabetics often suffer from candida infections, perhaps because of the higher glucose levels in their bodies."
Taking antibiotics can cause thrush too. Antibiotics kill all bacteria, including the 'nice' ones which keep candida under control. It's like pulling out all of the flowers and leaving candida in the garden on its own! It will just spread like our aforementioned weeds. Because candida is a fungus and not bacteria, antibiotics have no effect.
You can get thrush from your partner, but it's not a likely source of infection if he is circumcised. Thrush loves a warm, moist environment, and getting underneath a foreskin is the perfect place for it to flourish.
Male thrush is called balanitis which causes a red rash on the penis, and occasionally a discharge. Uncircumcised men should wash and dry their penises thoroughly.
Antibacterial soaps are not a good idea as they may kill the good bugs.
Newborn babies are prone to catching thrush, sometimes from their mothers who may have an infection of the nipple (ouch!). You can see the telltale white spots on babies' gums and inner cheeks.
This wily fungus likes it when we wear tight jeans and nylon underwear - creates a nice moist environment - so always wear cotton undies and get into some comfortable jeans! It can also develop under our breasts and between our legs.
You will never eliminate candida from your body, but as with weeds, you can control it with anti-fungal creams and tablets, called pessaries, which are inserted into the vagina.
Nystatin and miconazole are common antifungals. Sometimes more drastic measures are taken in stubborn infections. Antifungal antibiotics such as amphotericin are taken in tablet form to suppress candida growth in the bowel. This may be of questionable benefit in vaginal infections, but candida can be a serious threat to AIDS and cancer patients as it can flourish in any part of the body and may be a necessary course of treatment in these cases.
Treatments usually work quite quickly, but thrush can return with a vengeance! Some women never seem to get rid of it.
A healthy diet can help prevent thrush as it will boost your immune system and help maintain balance. There was some speculation that as candida is a fungus, eating other fungi like mushrooms and bread (contains yeast) will encourage its growth. There is no evidence for this.
However, candida does not like an acid environment, and some doctors encourage washing or douching with a very weak solution of vinegar (one part vinegar to five parts water) .
Professor Berman says inserting yogurt into the vagina may also help as yogurt is acidic and contains live culture with 'good' bacteria that may compete with candida and get it back to its 'harmless' state.
This home treatment won't work with other infections though.
Thrush is really a generic term for a vaginal infection and sometimes doctors will just hand over a script for a common antifungal if you tell them "oh I just have thrush" when you may really need something stronger. Also, antifungals are available over the counter and a lot of women diagnose themselves as having a candida infection, when they really have another bug. If you have any sort of discharge that is smelly or just not normal, see your doctor. They will take a vaginal swab and send it off for proper testing.
I know it can be excruciating but don't be embarrassed to see your doctor about vaginal infections. They are quite common - this means they see several people a day with symptoms just like yours.
Having thrush can make you miserable, so don't let it take over!
Kerryn Marlow is the Editor of: http://www.bodytalkmagazine.com