Hi! Um…this is embarrassing, but I was wondering if you could do a post to enlighten…um…people with yeast infections. Because it would be wonderful if…people…could find cheap cures for yeast infections, but when I–I mean people–google “skeptic yeast infection treatment” I get nothing. If douching with yogurt or whatever actually worked that would be kind of fantastic, but I suspect that it doesn’t. (Which is maybe why the word “fantastic” is appropriate.) Do I just have to suck it up and shell out for the medicine? I hope it doesn’t cost too much…I’ve never had one before. Anyway, sorry for the awkward question–really hope you answer it!
It’s true. There is not much good help on the internet for women looking for information about the sometimes wonky things that can happen to our girl parts. Most of what turns up is at best rumor and misinformation, and at worst, quacks selling fake cures. I’ll get to answering the question shortly, but first, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to dig into the politics of the matter. (Or, if you don’t care about the politics and would rather get straight to the answer, just skip the next 7 or so paragraphs; there’s a line of bold text to make it easier.)
Yeast infections remain a huge taboo in so-called polite society. If you have any doubt that this is true, just re-read the above question. Many women are afraid to talk about them. Why is this? Well, we are still fighting to get beyond a culture that tells us our vaginas in and of themselves are gross. So it’s understandable not to want to discuss something sort of gross that’s happening in a place we’ve been trying to convince ourselves (and the rest of society) is really not gross at all. I’m not suggesting that the state of your junk is necessarily suitable dinner table conversation, but we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, even in mixed company, much less with other women.
This taboo is not helpful. What happens is this: women who feel ashamed of their bodies or what’s happening to their bodies are afraid to seek treatment or ask questions and instead turn to home remedies or quack cures they find, privately, online. I really think that a big reason women might look like bigger believers in woo is a direct result of society making us feel like our bodies are dirty and inferior and that science can’t (or won’t) address our problems. Shame keeps women’s problems, and, by extension, their solutions, underground.
Looking back through Judeo-Christian cultural history, and how women were viewed through that lens, it is easy to understand why women would have developed socially transmitted, natural and intuitive systems for understanding and solving their problems. Because women were seen as inferior and their bodies as dirty wells of temptation, they had to come up with their own ways of figuring things out; ways that would necessarily be kept secret from men, and therefore kept out of mainstream culture.
This is the genesis of separate “ways of knowing” for men and women. It’s not that women are naturally more in touch with nature and intuition; just that we’ve had to be because the tools of science were not available to us until relatively recently. Much has changed, of course, but a lot of the social structure arising from these cultural dynamics still affects us today.
Which is why websites like this (and, really, the entire “natural medicine” cult) make me absolutely irate. These assholes make their living by reinforcing the idea that there are separate ways of knowing, which naturally will appeal to more women than men, because of how women are generally socialized in our culture. They display blatant misunderstandings of science, and of how the human body works, while claiming that established medicine is, at best, ineffective or, at worst, actively evil. In the case of the above website, they claim that “the medical establishment” doesn’t want you to know about their natural cure, because it’s cheap and effective, using common household ingredients, and that they know it works but that if you find out about it, you’ll stop buying drugs and lining their pockets. But then, as you scroll down the page, which oddly is an exact replica of a TV infomercial, but in text form, you come to this:
My e-book explains all the problems that cause yeast infections, the root causes and the SECRET ways to treat them. I reveal all the secrets, nothing is held back. Everything is explained in a simple, straight forward easy to understand fashion. I Sell no products …just my e-book.
Yup! There you have it. You don’t have to buy medicine (which you could get at the store for ten bucks), but, you have to buy a TOP SECRET ebook. For $39.97. No wait! If you act now, you can get it for $29.97. By now, they mean starting October 3, 2008 and ending after 100 copies are sold. And there’s a countdown, showing how many books are left. When I first visited, there were 7 copies left, and by the time I finished skimming, it was down to 3. Funnily enough, when I went back to double check something, the countdown had reset to 8. Hmmmm……
So. Bottom line. If you hadn’t already figured this out, pretty much the entire alt med machine depends on keeping us ignorant, ladies, whether the various perpetrators realize it or not. This is why I think skeptical activism in this area is so integral to feminism. Making women distrust science harms women and children, and continues to limit women to “natural” and “intuitive” ways of thinking. It’s an insidious form of sexism, almost always couched in pro-woman language. *SHE-HULK SMASH*
OK. Rant over. On to answering the nice reader’s question.
How best to deal with a yeast infection? Well, first, let’s talk science. Specifically, vaginal flora (sounds a little bit like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, doesn’t it?). All of us are basically walking microbe farms. Our bodies are covered with billions of bacteria and other microorganisms, inside and out, that have evolved with us over millions of years to perform various functions for us in exchange for a place to stay. Vaginas are no exception. In fact, vaginal bacteria and yeasts, in proper balance, help keep things normal and healthy for us.
A yeast infection occurs when the balance between bacteria and yeasts is disrupted (by antibiotics, hormonal changes, stress, etc) and yeast overgrows, irritating the skin and making your vagina and labia (and sometimes even your clitoris, hood, urethra, and/or anus) unhappy. Nothing at all to be ashamed of, just some unruly little microbial critters that need to be told what’s what.
Critical, responsible advice: If you’ve never had a yeast infection before, and think you may have one, you should definitely see a doctor to make sure it isn’t a more severe type of bacterial infection that can cause you damage. Once you’ve had one, and know what they look/feel like, it’s usually okay to self diagnose and treat future infections, if you feel comfortable doing so, with the obvious caveat that any prolonged or medicinally unresponsive infection should send you to the doc ASAP.
Over the counter yeast infection treatments work by killing off a sufficient amount of yeast to restore your vaginal flora to its normal, balanced state. That’s about as far as my knowledge on the matter goes, so I talked to Dr Amy Tuteur of The Skeptical OB and Science Based Medicine for some further information on the topic and some advice on navigating the often overwhelming range of treatment options.
Is candida necessarily a pathogen? Does it have any beneficial purpose in normal amounts? Iâ€™ve come across some obvious quackery online claiming that the only way to truly cure yeast infections is to eradicate all yeast from the body (using a top secret recipe you have to pay to get). This doesnâ€™t sound right to me.
Candida is a yeast. It is normally present in many places in and on the body, including the vagina. Under most conditions, it is not a pathogen, but alteration in the normal bacteria or alternation in immune function may lead to candida infections such as vaginitis or thrush (mouth infection). In cases of severe immuno-compromise, candida can spread through the body and invade the blood stream.
Although women can develop yeast vaginitis at any time, it is more common after taking antibiotics. That’s because antibiotics interfere with the normal balance of organisms in the vagina, killing some organisms, and allowing yeast to over grow. Treatment of yeast vaginitis has the goal of restoring candida to its normal role in the vagina, not erradicating it. Indeed, eradicating it permanently is virtually impossible.
Recurrent yeast infections may be a sign of an underlying medical problem. For example, women with diabetes are especially prone to yeast infections.
A google search for info on yeast infections turns up many â€œnaturalâ€ cures, some of which seem plausible (eating yogurt), and some that just sound stupid and dangerous (douching with boric acid). Is there any science to back any of these claims?
Yogurt will not treat yeast infections, but some claim that it will prevent yeast infections. That’s because yogurt contains lactobacillus acidophilus, which supposedly helps repopulate the normal vaginal mix of bacteria. However, clinical trials have been very disappointing. To my knowledge, there are really no effective “natural” cures.
How often will a yeast infection cure itself? Iâ€™ve heard that menstruation will often clear things up, but I suspect this may be a matter of correlation/causation confusion.
It’s certainly possible for a yeast infection to go away, since it is possible for the mix of bacteria in the vagina to go back to normal, but it doesn’t happen that often. By the time a woman has symptoms, the infection is unlikely to go away on its own.
The range of treatments at the pharmacy can be rather overwhelming; everything from creams to suppositories to supplements, one day to seven day treatments, name brand vs store brand, all at prices ranging from $5 to $30 and up. What should a girl spend her money on to get the best fix at the best price?
The active ingredient of the treatment should be miconazole, clotrimazole, tioconazole, and butoconazole. Miconazole and clotrimazole are the treatments most commonly recommented. There’s no need to buy brand name if the store brand contains the same active ingredient in the same amount. Some women can be successfully treated with a short course (1 day), but many women find the 3 (or even the 7) day treatment more effective.
Thank you, Dr Amy, for helping us out with this one, and for fighting the good fight against quackery. You rock.
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