Yeast Infections During Pregnancy

Pregnant women are especially susceptible to yeast infections. Find out what you need to know about preventing and treating this pesky but harmless condition.

With so much going on down there already, the last thing you need is an itchy yeast infection when you’re expecting. Unfortunately, soaring estrogen levels that come with having a bun in the oven increase your risk of having one, making yeast infections the most common vaginal infection during pregnancy. In fact, nearly 75 percent of all adult women have had at least one yeast infection in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news: While uncomfortable for the mother-to-be, yeast infections don’t affect your pregnancy or your baby-to-be.

Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of an otherwise normal vaginal fungus called Candida albicans. When the balance of bacteria and yeast in the vagina is altered — usually when estrogen levels rise due to pregnancy, oral contraceptive use or estrogen therapy — this yeast may overgrow and cause symptoms. Excess moisture can also exasperate an imbalance, making your nether regions a more welcoming environment for fungal growth.

It’s normal to experience a significant increase in vaginal discharge during pregnancy: The thin, milky, mild-smelling, voluminous stuff is so common it has a name: leukorrhea. A yeast infection, however, makes your discharge white, lumpy and odorless. You’ll also likely experience itching and burning of the area outside the vagina (called the vulva), which may look red and swollen. Other yeast infection symptoms can include painful urination and discomfort during intercourse.

Fortunately yeast infections aren’t dangerous and rarely is more than an irritating inconvenience. However if you have a yeast infection when you go into labor, it is possible to pass it to your baby during delivery, since the fungus that causes vaginal yeast infections can also cause thrush (a yeast imbalance typically in the mouth). In this case, your newborn might develop white patches in the mouth, which can be passed back to you when you breastfeed. Luckily, thrush is easily treated with a mild antifungal medication for baby and an antifungal cream for you.

One more thing: Yeast infections can look and feel a lot like other more serious conditions, including a variety of sexually transmitted diseases or bacterial vaginosis — one more reason why you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms if you think you have a yeast infection, especially during pregnancy. If you’re experiencing yellow, gray or green discharge with a strong odor or general itching and burning in the vaginal area, let your doctor know.

While you can’t control your hormones, you can take a few steps to prevent yeast infections in the first place, mostly by keeping your genital area dry and allowing air to circulate down there. Some tactics to try:

Wear cotton undergarments that allow your genital area to “breathe”
Sleep without underwear or pajama bottoms at night to allow the area to breathe
Take showers instead of baths (especially bubble baths)
Use gentle, unscented soaps on your genitals
Never douche or use vaginal sprays or deodorants
Practice meticulous hygiene, especially after going to the bathroom (i.e., always wipe from front to back)
After showering or swimming, make sure your genital area is completely dry before putting on your panties and clothes
Keep sugar to a minimum in your daily diet (yeast love sugar) as well as refined grain products (which your body converts into sugar)
Despite what you may have heard, there is no clear evidence that yogurt,other natural remedies (like garlic, tea tree oil etc.) are effective for treating or preventing common yeast infections. But since yogurt’s also a good source of calcium, it can’t hurt to add a daily dose to your diet if you’ve had recurrent bouts.

Even if you’ve had yeast infections before and are a pro at self-diagnosing, it’s best to call your doctor before using an over-the-counter medication. Why? Some women who think they have a yeast infection actually have a bacterial infection like bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis, where a yeast infection medication will only prolong the issue. (If it turns out this is the case for you, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic.)

With your practitioner’s okay, an over-the-counter or prescription antifungal cream or vaginal suppository is the best option to safely treat yeast infections throughout all three trimesters. Keep in mind that it may take several days before it brings relief. Even when you do start to feel better, continue to use the medication for as long as your practitioner suggested — which may be a week or more.

The more convenient oral antifungal medication, fluconazole, is not recommended in the first trimester (research suggests it could cause birth defects in babies exposed to high doses) — though your doctor may prescribe it if you’re in your second or third trimester or if baby’s arrived and you’re breastfeeding.

Unfortunately, medication may banish a yeast infection only temporarily; the infection often returns off and on until after delivery and may require repeated treatment.