High blood sugars affect nearly every part of your body. When it comes to the health of your genitalia as a person with diabetes, high blood sugars can also lead to the growth of yeast.
Yeast infections are very treatable — but they are extremely uncomfortable, stressful, and inevitably recurring if your blood sugars continue to be high.
In this article, we’ll discuss how diabetes can cause frequent yeast infections, how yeast infections are treated, and what you can do to prevent them in the future.
What is a yeast infection?
A yeast infection develops within the vagina — and is also referred to as “vulvovaginal candidiasis,” explains Planned Parenthood.
Yeast is an important part of a healthy vagina, but too much is a big problem. When the healthy amount of yeast in your vagina grows out of control it leads to extremely uncomfortable symptoms.
Yeast is technically a fungus, and most yeast infections are considered a “fungal infection.”
Some yeast infections can be a “bacterial” infection but these are less common.
Yeast infections can develop in other parts of the body — your mouth, tongue, and throat — but this is referred to medically as “thrush.”
Symptoms of a yeast infection
The earliest signs of a yeast infection are easy to ignore or dismiss. Within a few days, those symptoms will escalate quickly as the amount of yeast grows. Some of those symptoms can become unbearable if left untreated.
- Itching in and around the vagina
- Burning in and around the vagina
- White, clumpy cottage cheese-like substance inside and around the vagina
- White discharge
- If any odor, it is mild
- A stinging sensation when you urinate
- Burning pain during intercourse
Do your best not to scratch and aggressively rub the affected area. Excessive manual irritation of the area can create small cuts in the very tender skin within your vaginal area, making the infection worse.
If your symptoms include any of the following, you should contact your doctor immediately
- Yellow discharge
- Strong, foul-smelling odor
- Bloody discharge
- Increase urination
- Stomach or back pain
Causes of yeast infection
Some women are simply prone to yeast infections. Most women will experience at least one or two during their adult life.
Women with diabetes, on the other hand, will likely experience yeast infections more often due to short-term or long-term high blood sugar levels.
- High blood sugar levels
- Normal changes in hormone levels (during your menstrual cycle or period)
- Cortisone injections
- Weakened immune system
- HIV/Aids treatments
- Anabolic steroids
- Too much moisture in the vaginal area from tight underwear, damp panty liners, damp menstrual pads, sweat, wet swimsuit, etc.
- Reaction to sexual partner’s genital chemistry
- Reaction to sexual partner’s semen
- Intercourse with a person who has a yeast infection
Men can develop a yeast infection in their testicles or penis if they have intercourse with a woman who has one, but it’s rare.
Diagnosing a yeast infection
While the symptoms of a yeast infection are generally obvious and hard to confuse with another medical condition, it is recommended that you contact your healthcare team to get a proper diagnosis.
They will take a swab sample of the discharge to confirm it is a yeast infection. This will also determine whether it’s fungal or bacterial.
Why diabetes increases your risk of a yeast infection
Yeast loves sugar. Much like the chemistry of yeast in a loaf of bread, yeast consumes sugar and this encourages its growth.
When your blood sugar is high for a prolonged period of time — or it’s spiking severely high repeatedly over the course of a few days — you can easily trigger out of control yeast growth.
250 mg/dL is the general threshold when your body begins to struggle with normal tasks — like exercise, for example. Persistently “hanging out” above this level is an ideal environment for the growth of yeast.
When levels are well over 300 mg/dL, the development of yeast is almost inevitable if blood sugars aren’t improved quickly.
While every vagina has a normal and healthy amount of yeast in it at all times, an infection develops when the amount of yeast grows too much or too fast.
It’s said that most women (even those without diabetes) will experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetime, but people with diabetes are likely going to experience far more.
The excess glucose in your bloodstream when your blood sugar levels are running higher for a prolonged period of time (even just one week) actually feeds the growth of that fungus.
While there are treatment options easily available for yeast infections, a person with diabetes will continue to develop them until blood sugar levels are brought back down into a healthier range.
Women struggling with diabulimia — which entails persistently high blood sugar levels — will likely face chronic yeast infections until they achieve recovery from their eating disorder.
Treatment options for yeast infections
There are several treatment options for yeast infections depending on the severity of the infection and how your body responds to one type of antifungal versus another.
Do keep in mind that your yeast infection will come back — sometimes immediately — if your blood sugars continue to persist above 250 mg/dL. No antifungal will cure your yeast infection fully if you don’t lower your blood sugar levels.
Over-the-counter antifungal medications
These medications are either a pill-shape or a cream. Both come with a plastic applicator tube similar to a tampon, that pushes the capsule or cream into the vagina where the yeast is growing.
You’ll see options for a “3-day,” “5-day,” or “7-day” treatment. A 3-day treatment should work for the average yeast infection.
In the United States, the available brands are:
- Miconazole (Monistat 3, Monistat 5, Monistat 7, Micon 7)
- Tioconazole (Monistat 1, Vagistat 1)
- Butoconazole (Gynazole 1)
- Clotrimazole (Mycelex-G, Femcare, Gyne-Lotrimin)
- Nystatin (Mycostatin)
- Terconazole (Terazol 3, Terazol 7)
If miconazole doesn’t cure your infection, you may find tioconazole does — and vice versa. Most people respond better to one over the other.
Prescription antifungal medication
If over-the-counter remedies don’t bring you relief within a few days, it’s worth a call to your doctor and as about prescription-strength medications.
The most common brand in the United States is Fluconazole (Diflucan)
If your yeast infection is persistent or frequent, you should absolutely contact your healthcare team. Chronic yeast infections can be a sign of something else.
These medications cannot cure your yeast infection but they can help reduce the exterior burning and itching while you treat the infection with another medication.
In the United States, the available brands are:
- Vagisil (wipes or cream)
Preventing yeast infections
In addition to keeping your blood sugar levels in a mostly healthy range, Planned Parenthood recommends the following to reduce your risk of developing a yeast infection:
- Avoid scented tampons, vaginal deodorants or other products intended for your vagina that contain perfume or artificial scents.
- Avoid using perfumed and scented bath products including soap, laundry detergent, bubble bath, bath bombs, or colored toilet paper.
- Absolutely do not “douche.” The practice of douching actually washes away the healthy, organic fluid in your vagina which disturbs its natural balance. Your vagina is a “self-cleaning” organism. Avoid interfering with its natural process unless you’re treating a clear condition.
- Avoid sitting in damp underwear or swimsuits for lengthy periods of time.
- Change your underwear after exercising to avoid sitting in sweaty, damp underwear.
- Change tampons, pads, menstrual cups, and liners regularly.
- Wash your vagina with water and mild unscented soap.
- Avoid transferring bacteria from your anus into your vagina by wiping “front to back.”
- Consider that the lubricant or spermicide you’re using may be a source of infection — and consider switching if you are developing recurring infections.
- Look at your vagina with a mirror when it’s healthy so you know what it looks like when it’s not.
- Contact your healthcare team (primary care or gynecologist)
- Strive to keep your blood sugar levels in your goal range and your HbA1c at or below 8.0 percent, and ideally below 7.0 percent.
Yeast infections are no picnic! As people with diabetes, they can be just another motivation to manage our blood sugars as well as possible!
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