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What is Thrush—an STI or Something Else? Everything You Need To Know

 

Thrush is one of the most common infections to affect the genitals and can cause distressing symptoms such as pain, itchiness and unusual discharge. Although it shares some of the same symptoms as many sexually transmitted infections (STI), thrush is NOT an STI.

This article explains everything you need to know about thrush, including the symptoms, risk factors, treatment and how to prevent recurring infections.

What is Thrush?

Thrush is a very common infection of the genitals caused by an overgrowth of yeast, most commonly a species called candida albicans, which normally lives naturally in mucus membranes in small numbers. Yeast often lives harmlessly in and on our bodies; however, when the balance of microorganisms inhabiting our private parts becomes disrupted, yeast numbers can skyrocket, resulting in the uncomfortable symptoms of thrush. 

Now to get some facts straight!

  • While thrush mainly affects the vagina because candida thrives in warm, moist conditions, it can affect penis owners too!
  • Thrush is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but it can sometimes be triggered by sex, and it is possible to pass on candida through sex.
  • Thrush infections are not solely limited to the genitals. It can affect other body areas, including the mouth, armpits, groin, and between the fingers.

Thrush is often mistaken for an STI, as it exhibits similar symptoms. If you notice anything unusual going on downstairs and are unsure whether you have a yeast infection or an STI, remove the stress and uncertainty by taking one of Yoxly’s at-home STI kits.

Thrush Symptoms

If you’ve got thrush, you’ll usually notice something is up, although sometimes it is symptomless. Here are the main symptoms of thrush to look out for.

Vagina owners:
  • White, odourless vaginal discharge similar to cottage cheese. (Read our blog article on vaginal discharge to learn what’s normal and what is cause for concern).
  • Itching, swelling and soreness around the vulva or vagina.
  • Pain or a stinging sensation during sex or urination.
Penis owners:
  • Irritation, burning and redness around the head of the penis or under the foreskin.
  • Cottage cheese-like discharge.
  • Unusual or unpleasant smells.
  • Difficulty pulling back the foreskin.

The symptoms of thrush are not in the slightest bit pleasant, but it’s important to remember it is nothing to be ashamed of! Your body is host to a whole menagerie of microorganisms that sometimes have a mind of their own. So it is perfectly normal for things to go a bit awry once in a while…

 

Infographic - Guide to Thrust Symptoms

Risk Factors for Thrush

Several risk factors can disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in the body and increase the likelihood of a thrush infection. These include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Using soaps, shampoos and shower gels in the genital area
  • Use of combined hormonal contraceptives
  • Use of hormone replacement therapy
  • Damaged or irritated skin
  • Antibiotic use
  • Poorly controlled diabetes
  • A weakened immune system due to chemotherapy or autoimmune diseases like HIV
  • Menstruation
  • Smoking
  • Corticosteroid use
  • Stress
  • Hormonal or vaginal pH changes

While often there isn’t anything you can do to change some of these risk factors, it’s important to be aware of them and to keep an eye out for signs of thrush.

Treatment

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above for the first time and think you might have thrush, the best first step is to visit your GP or sexual health clinic to get a diagnosis.

Mostly, thrush is easily treated with antifungal suppositories, creams or tablets, and symptoms usually go away within 7–14 days. Antifungal medicine can be purchased over-the-counter in pharmacies, so if you’ve had a diagnosis in the past and know the symptoms, you can treat it yourself. But bear in mind that antifungal medicine should not be used more than twice in 6 months without consulting your doctor or a pharmacist.

If your thrush doesn’t clear up or comes back frequently, you might need to take longer treatment, sometimes for up to 6 months. In this case, seek medical advice from a doctor who can recommend the best treatment and try to identify the root cause of your infections.

Self-Care Tips to Prevent Thrush

Roughly 75 out of every 100 women will experience thrush at least once in their lifetime, with many suffering recurring infections. It is not only uncomfortable but can also leave us feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

To reduce your risk of recurring infection, follow these simple tips.

  • Avoid using soaps and shower gels that are heavily perfumed when washing your delicate parts. Instead, use water and emollients such as E45 cream.
  • Make sure to dry yourself properly after washing - candida loves warm, moist conditions!
  • Wear cotton or other breathable underwear. Avoid wearing tight underwear and tights.
  • Don’t use douches or deodorants on your genitals, as this can disrupt your natural balance of bacteria.
  • Avoid sex until your thrush has cleared up.

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Summary

Thrush is a yeast infection that can affect both male and female genitals, causing itching, soreness and an unusual, white discharge. It isn’t an STI, although it can cause similar symptoms and can be triggered and passed on by sex.

Risk factors such as antibiotics, pregnancy, and a weakened immune system can all increase the chances of developing thrush. You can buy most antifungal thrush medicines over-the-counter at a pharmacy, without a prescription. But, if you have never experienced thrush before,  it is a good idea to visit your doctor first.

Recurrent thrush infections are common. To keep it at bay, avoid soaps and tight underwear, abstain from sex if you have an infection, and keep your bits as dry as possible! Seek medical advice if your thrush infection doesn’t clear up or keeps coming back.

 

Yoxly's Awesome Contributors (YACs) are a diverse group of individuals who are passionate about public health, and committed to furthering our mission. Yoxly provides a platform where a variety of sexual health topics (some more awkward than others!) can be explored, in an informative and non-judgmental way. If you'd like to become one of Yoxly's Awesome Contributors, contact us!

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