18th July, 202210 min read

Vaginal thrush: how to spot the symptoms and treat it

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For many women, vaginal thrush is on the list of life’s great irritations – up to 3 out of 4 of us get it at least once.

It’s usually harmless, and research shows that it won’t have any long-term effects on your health. But vaginal thrush symptoms can be very uncomfortable – think itching and irritation, a thick creamy discharge, and stinging when you pee.

Thrush can be more than just inconvenient, too, especially if it keeps coming back. Studies suggest that fewer than 5% of women have what’s known as ‘recurrent’ or ‘complicated’ thrush, which is 3-4 episodes in a year.

In some cases, it can get in the way of everything from sex to exercise, and it may be very distressing. But thrush isn’t something you just have to put up with. So read on to learn how to deal with it, from easy ways to treat it, to helping to stop it from happening in the first place.

What is vaginal thrush?

Thrush is a common yeast infection that’s usually caused by a yeast called candida albicans. This is a type of fungus, which can live harmlessly in your vagina.

When everything is as it should be, your vagina is home to a delicate balance of yeast and bacteria. Some of the bacteria work to stop too much yeast growing. But the balance can be disrupted, allowing the yeast to grow out of control.

The result? Your vagina and/or the outer part of your genitals (your vulva) become inflamed, leading to the symptoms of thrush.

Vaginal thrush symptoms

Thrush doesn’t always cause obvious symptoms. If you do get symptoms, they can vary from person to person and they may be mild or severe.

Common signs include:

  • itching and irritation in your vagina or vulva
  • thick, white vaginal discharge – often said to look a bit like cottage cheese – which isn’t usually smelly
  • burning or stinging when you pee or have sex

In some cases, you may also notice:

  • watery discharge
  • redness and/or swelling
  • a rash
  • vaginal pain

Is it thrush or something else?

Vaginal thrush can have similar symptoms to several other conditions, including:

  • bacterial vaginosis (BV)
    – this is another common cause of vaginal discharge. But with BV, the discharge is usually watery and has a strong, fishy smell. BV doesn’t usually cause soreness or itching
  • sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
    – thrush isn’t an STI, but it may share some symptoms.
    Chlamydia
    can cause vaginal discharge, while several STIs can cause itching
  • vaginitis
    – this is soreness and swelling in and around your vagina. Thrush can cause it, but vaginitis can also be a sign of an STI or another infection
  • menopausal vaginal changes – the menopause can cause
    vaginal dryness
    , which can mean you get thrush more often
  • normal
    vaginal discharge
    – your discharge can become thicker and heavier at different times in your cycle, but it’s not usual to get other symptoms such as itching

If you’re concerned about any vaginal symptoms, try our

Smart Symptom Checker
to help you work out what to do next.

Men and thrush

You might think of it as a female condition, but men can also get thrush – though it’s less common. It usually affects the head of the penis and the area under the foreskin.

Find out more about

thrush in men
.

What causes vaginal thrush?

Candida albicans likes to grow in warm, damp environments, such as your vagina. And if the balance of bacteria in your vagina changes, it can start to overgrow.

This means anything that affects the conditions in your vagina may trigger thrush, including:

  • pregnancy
    – being pregnant causes hormonal changes that affect your vagina, which may make thrush more likely. While 20% of women have candida in their vagina, it's found in 30-40% of pregnant women. Symptomatic thrush in pregnant women is also more likely. There’s no evidence that thrush can harm your unborn baby, but research is looking into whether treating thrush in pregnancy can reduce the risk of early labour
  • taking
    contraceptive
    pills or
    hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
    – taking medications which cause higher levels of the hormone oestrogen can also make you susceptible to thrush but it’s not yet understood exactly why this happens
  • sex – you can get thrush if you’ve never had sex but for some people, it can be triggered by sex and there is some evidence to suggest a link. Right now, there’s not enough evidence to say for sure if thrush can be transferred between partners. If you have thrush and your partner isn’t showing any symptoms, they won’t usually need treatment. Read on below for more on thrush and sex
  • antibiotics
    – at least a quarter of women get thrush during or after taking a course of antibiotics. These medicines can affect the balance of bacteria in your vagina, allowing the yeast to grow
  • diabetes
    – poorly controlled diabetes can allow more yeast to grow
  • a weakened immune system – this could be because of
    chemotherapy
    treatment or
    HIV
    . It may mean your body struggles to stay in control of yeast overgrowth
  • damaged or irritated vulval skin – this can allow candida albicans to grow out of control. It can happen if you have an underlying vulval skin problem such as psoriasis

Treatment for vaginal thrush

Thrush – how to stop the symptoms and treat it

You’ll probably need to use an antifungal medicine to treat vaginal thrush. This works by killing the candida albicans yeast that’s causing the infection.

There are different types, including:

  • creams and pessaries you put into your vagina or apply to your vulva – such as clotrimazole or miconazole – sometimes along with a steroid cream to help with the itching
  • capsules or liquid you swallow, such as fluconazole or itraconazole

They’ll normally get rid of your symptoms within 1 or 2 weeks.

Self-care tips

There are a few things you can do to help ease those uncomfortable thrush symptoms while you’re waiting for antifungal medicine to work. Some may also help stop it from coming back:

  • wash your vulva with water and a gentle emollient – avoid scented soaps, washes or shower gels, and don’t clean inside your vagina (read more about
    how to clean your vagina
    )
  • dry your vulva properly after washing or swimming, and don’t sit around in a damp swimsuit – the yeast can grow more in warm, moist conditions
  • avoid tight clothing and underwear – choose breathable, cotton underwear and loose-fitting trousers
  • if you have diabetes, try to keep your blood sugar levels under control
  • if you think your thrush may be triggered by sex, you could try using a gentle, water-based lubricant during sex

When to see a pharmacist

You can get antifungal medicines for thrush from a pharmacy, without a prescription, if you’ve been diagnosed with vaginal thrush before and you know the symptoms.

When to see a doctor

Your doctor can help you sort out thrush in several ways.

Getting a diagnosis

You should see a doctor or go to a sexual health clinic if you have thrush symptoms and you haven’t had it before. They can make sure it really is thrush, work out why it might have happened and help make sure you know what to get from the pharmacy.

Dealing with thrush if you need more support

  • you’re under 16 or over 60
  • you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • treatment from a pharmacist hasn’t worked after 7 to 14 days
  • you’re at risk of a sexual infection, for example you’ve recently had unprotected sex with a new partner

If thrush symptoms keep coming back

If you have thrush 3-4 times in a year, you might be diagnosed with recurrent thrush. As well as a longer course of treatment (see below), you might need tests to check if something else is causing your symptoms.

If you have severe symptoms or recurrent thrush, your doctor might prescribe:

  • a longer course of antifungal medication
  • a bigger dose of antifungal capsules or liquid (not recommended if you’re pregnant)
  • a boric acid capsule to put into your vagina – only used if your symptoms haven’t improved after trying antifungal medication

Natural remedies for vaginal thrush: could they help?

Some people like to try natural remedies to ease their symptoms. There isn’t much evidence to show that they can help to treat or prevent thrush but you may find them helpful:

  • probiotics – found in ‘live’ yoghurt and also sold as supplements to be taken orally or inserted into your vagina, probiotics contain ‘good’ bacteria. It’s thought that these bacteria may help keep your vagina in balance. Some research suggests that when they’re used with conventional treatment they could help you get better quicker or help prevent thrush coming back – but we still don’t know enough to say for sure
  • yoghurt and honey mixes – some people find that applying honey and yoghurt to their vagina helps ease symptoms. But there’s no evidence to support this
  • garlic – this also contains a compound with antifungal properties. Some women try taking garlic capsules orally to help with thrush, but there isn’t any evidence that it’s effective and it can have side effects including heartburn and bloating
  • tea tree oil – some people find that adding tea tree oil to their bath can help with symptoms. Again, there isn’t evidence to suggest that tea tree oil is beneficial in treating thrush that keeps returning, and it can cause skin reactions in some people

Read about home remedies for vaginal itching – including what’s worth trying and what to avoid.

Your questions answered

Is vaginal thrush contagious?

“Although thrush isn’t an STI, there could be a possible link to sex,” says

Dr Adiele Hoffman
, doctor and Healthily expert. “The type of sex and partner may also be a factor. Thrush seems to be more linked to oral and, less commonly, anal sex, although women who only have sex with women don’t seem to be at higher risk. If you have vaginal thrush, you might want to put sex on hold until it has been treated – and you might not fancy it anyway, given those irritating symptoms. Bear in mind that some antifungal creams can damage
condoms
and
diaphragms
, so you might need to use a different type of contraception if you’re having sex when you have thrush.”

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.