5 Things You Might Mistake For A Yeast Infection

Quite a few other meddlesome vaginal issues can cause similar symptoms as yeast infections but necessitate wildly different treatments. Here, ob/gyns walk you through the most common ones.
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Yeast infections don't have a monopoly on itching, burning, and weird discharge.

For SELF, by Zahra Barnes.

Lizzie Roberts / Getty Images

In today's roundup of extremely obvious statements: The sky is blue, grass is green, and no one wants to get a yeast infection. But unfortunately, for some people with vaginas, they're a fact of life. These annoying infections happen due to an overgrowth of the naturally occurring fungus Candida albicans, and they're pretty common, affecting three out of every four women in their lifetimes, according to Mayo Clinic.

Since yeast infections aren't exactly rare, when you experience those hallmark symptoms--itching is the biggest one, followed by strange discharge and burning--you may immediately diagnose yourself, pop over to the pharmacy, and pick up some over-the-counter meds. Only issue is, quite a few other meddlesome vaginal issues can cause similar symptoms but necessitate wildly different treatments. Here, ob/gyns walk you through the most common ones.

1. Chlamydia and gonorrhea
"Yeast infections tend to produce inflammation, which is why you get those symptoms," Idries Abdur-Rahman, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn, tells SELF. "Anything that causes or mimics inflammation can cause similar ones," he explains. Sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea fit the bill.

Yeast infection-related discharge is often "thick, white, and cottage cheese-like," Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF, and there aren't any infections that exactly replicate it 100 percent, says Abdur-Rahman. But as Hutcherson notes, people sometimes think any abnormal change in discharge is related to yeast, even if it's really a sign of an STI. Although chlamydia and gonorrhea don't always present with symptoms, when they do, unusual discharge is one of the top signs. So is burning while peeing--another thing people may attribute to yeast infections.

When left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can in turn cause infertility. Luckily, these STIs are both treatable once you see a doctor.

2. Trichomoniasis
If you've never heard of this sexually transmitted infection, you're not alone. "Trichomoniasis is one of the STIs I see most frequently," says Abdur-Rahman, who notes that despite its prevalence--thanks to antibiotics, it's the most common curable STI--a lot of people don't know about it. That may be because, as Abdur-Rahman explains, "It's relatively benign since it doesn't tend to cause long-term ill effects or stay with you forever." Not everyone will develop symptoms, but women who do may experience itching, burning, and thin discharge that's clear, white, yellowish, or greenish, says the CDC.

3. Bacterial vaginosis
This infection is actually the most common one in women ages 15-44, according to the CDC. Bacterial vaginosis happens when the "bad" bacteria in the vagina have a larger presence than the "good" ones. Just like a yeast infection, it can cause changes in discharge (it may turn gray or grayish white and give off a fishy smell), itching and burning in the vagina. Although it's unpleasant in the moment, the good news is that you can clear it up with a round of antibiotics, says Abdur-Rahman.

4. Herpes

One main herpes marker is painful genital sores. Although they can show up on the outer genitalia, that's not always the case. "They can also be inside [the vagina], which can cause itching and burning," says Abdur-Rahman. Although herpes isn't currently treatable, there are medications like Valtrex that can help suppress outbreaks, especially once you can sense them coming.

5. An allergic reaction or sensitivity
Although they're formidable organs, vaginas are also quite sensitive. "If you're using a soap, lotion, or cream that you're allergic or sensitive to, that can cause itching and burning because of inflammation," says Abdur-Rahman. Same goes for things like laundry detergents that touch the sheets and towels that get close to your nethers, or douching, which can also piss off your vagina. In reality, there's no need to clean your vagina with anything, much less something with a strong fragrance. "The vagina is like a self-cleaning oven--it cleanses itself," says Hutcherson.

Bottom line: Unless you're 100 percent sure you're dealing with a yeast infection, see your doctor for confirmation.

Both Abdur-Rahman and Hutcherson say that if you've been diagnosed with yeast infections before and something is presenting in the exact same way, it's OK to get over-the-counter meds. But if you've never had a yeast infection and are experiencing strange symptoms, or you've had them before but things are different this time around, get in touch with a medical professional.

And no matter what, if you do try medication on your own and things aren't markedly better in 24 hours, get yourself to a doctor, says Hutcherson. "At that point, you want to rule out other things," she explains.

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