By Imogen Robinson
Many women will be familiar with the symptoms of vaginal thrush. Itchiness, feeling uncomfortable. Maybe some discharge, perhaps pain during sex, or feeling dry. Most women who have had it before will probably just go to their pharmacy for some Canesten and when their symptoms are cleared up forget all about it again. For others, though, thrush can be a completely debilitating problem, with some experiencing thrush on a regular basis. Despite following medical advice, and despite having no underlying medical conditions that could be causing it, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why these women are so susceptible.
Charlotte*, 24, a digital outreach executive, started getting the condition when she was 16, and now gets it every few months, or more if she goes on a trip or on holiday. The very first time she got thrush, she was told that it was one of the most aggressive cases the doctors at the clinic had ever seen. “I had this red, raw rash,” she remembers, “and it was so itchy, and then scabbed over.” Now, her symptoms tend to be the same each time: vaginal discharge, constant stinging, and stinging when she pees. “The constant stinging is the worst part for me,” she adds. “I have cried from the pain before.”
There are certain situations when she knows it’s inevitable that she will get thrush. For example, she gets it on holiday, especially if she goes in the sea or in a swimming pool. Working out a lot will also bring on a bout, as will wearing jeans that are too tight, sleeping in underwear, after she has sex if she’s not super hygienic afterwards, and if she showers in water that is different from her normal source of water.
“When I first developed it I went to the STI clinic because I didn’t know what it was, but after that I went to the doctors,” she says. “The doctors gave me tests for diabetes to see if that was the cause, but those came back negative.” Aside from that, she hasn’t received any other treatment or tests and doctors haven’t prescribed her anything apart from the usual over-the-counter treatments. She takes a Canesten oral tablet to get rid of it, which works, and while she has used the pessary before, she found it made her ill and she hasn’t used it since. She rarely goes to the doctor for treatment now, even though she gets it more than three times a year, as she says she is just told all the “usual stuff” that she already knows.
As well as taking the oral tablet, she has her own methods of getting rid of thrush, and of reducing her symptoms. “I put loads of Sudocrem around my vagina,” she says, “and take off my underwear, keeping my legs as far apart as possible. I also drink a lot of water, I wet tissue and place it on my vagina, and sometimes I even just sit on the toilet until I feel better.”
Despite knowing when to expect it, and being an expert at dealing with it, Charlotte says thrush still has quite a big effect on her mood and general wellbeing. “It’s so uncomfortable, and you just want to be left alone until it goes away,” she says. “It affects my sexual relationships the most — I know that I tend to get it from having sex, so sometimes I dread getting intimate in case it leads to thrush. I can’t even use condoms because they flare it up.”
Like many women who get thrush regularly, she has no idea why she has always been so susceptible. “I do everything they tell you to do,” she says. “I shower every day and after exercise, so it’s nothing to do with hygiene, and I still keep getting it. I have polycystic ovaries and get water infections a lot too, so I don’t know if that might be part of it. I even thought it might be because I don’t have a ‘thigh gap’, but the doctor said weight is nothing to do with it, and in any case I am a healthy weight for my height.”
Like Charlotte, 27-year-old Jess* also suffers from recurring thrush, and says it is almost guaranteed whenever she sleeps with a new partner. She gets it at least three times a year, and first got it when she was 17. “My symptoms are always the same,” she says. “A thick white discharge coupled with itching, but the itching is inside the vagina so I can’t scratch it.” While she doesn’t know why she is so susceptible, she does know that sex is a big factor.
“I did a lot of reading on this when I was younger, trying to find the reason behind my recurring thrush, and what most advice out there actually seemed to miss out was that rough or sore penetrative sex can actually cause thrush. For me it’s not the usual soap/wiping advice, but if sex is sore then that is a guaranteed trigger for me,” she says.
Similarly to Charlotte, she was prescribed standard over-the-counter treatments by doctors (Jess takes a pessary), and hasn’t really had any other advice, nor any tests to figure out why she gets it so frequently. “The medical part is kind of the hardest part of all of it,” Jess says. “GPs can only swab you when you’re symptomatic but once you’re symptomatic it can take weeks to secure an appointment and by then the thrush has cleared up.” So, in short, there isn’t a whole lot than can really be done, except deal with it as quickly as possible every time it happens.
Now, Jess has found her own solutions for keeping thrush at bay, namely using non-bio washing powder, and ensuring she is well lubricated before having sex. Still, she finds it difficult to explain to a new partner, and says she worries that some will think it’s an STI. “Plus,” she says, “The symptoms aren’t exactly pleasant to explain.”
Liv*, 26, also finds that sex is a key factor in causing thrush. She’s been getting recurring thrush for a long time, and the frequency increased once she became sexually active. “I get itchy, and get yellow discharge with a strong smell,” she says. “And I get it after sex, regardless of whether or not I use a condom.” She went to her GP who prescribed her medication, and also gets it over the counter, and now finds that the quickest working solution for her is to use Canesten Duo.
“It took a while for doctors to take the problem seriously,” she says. “But as there is a history of endometrial cancer in my family, and I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), I am monitored closely anyway.” Despite this, there is no obvious explanation for her recurring thrush, although she suspects it may be linked to her PCOS. “I haven’t tried modifying my diet to help, as I am coeliac, so I already have a heavily restricted diet,” she adds. “I was also dairy free for two years, but that didn’t seem to change anything.”
General medical advice is that if you get thrush more than twice in six months then you should go to your GP. Nonetheless, as the women above have stated, if tests for underlying conditions such as diabetes come back clear, there is little doctors can really do to help apart from advise you on the best course of treatment. However, avoiding shower gels, tight underwear, vaginal douches, and baths could help, and while they won’t prevent your thrush from coming back, over the counter treatments should clear up each bout.
*Names have been changed