According to the CDC, one of the most popular forms of contraception (birth control) among women aged 15 to 44 is the pill. Most women have at least heard of birth control pills, even if they haven’t tried them. They’ve been around for a long time, and there are a lot of myths floating around about them, including these. You may have also heard the myth that birth control pills cause yeast infections. While this is not true, it is true that certain types of birth control may increase the risk of getting a yeast infection. What does this mean, exactly? Let’s start with the basics.
What’s in Birth Control?
Different types of contraception (birth control), such as pills, rings, and patches, all contain a combination of the hormones estrogen and progestin (the man-made version of progesterone). These hormones prevent your ovaries from releasing an egg each month, a process called ovulation. Preventing release of an egg is how these hormones prevent pregnancy. In other words, no egg to fertilize means no pregnancy). These hormones can also change the mucus in the cervix, which makes fertilization more difficult.
What’s a Yeast Infection?
It’s a fungal infection of the vulva and vagina. Yeast infections are pretty uncomfortable, with redness, itching, burning sensations, and discomfort. There can also be vaginal discharge, although this does not happen in every case. They are very common; according to the Mayo Clinic, 3 out of 4 women will experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetime.
Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of a yeast species called Candida. It’s normal for yeast and bacteria to live in the vagina, but an imbalance between them leads to an infection. Risk factors for yeast infection include the following:
- diabetes mellitus – especially if poorly controlled
- treatment with antibiotics – disrupts the ‘balance’ between yeast and bacteria in the vagina
- pregnancy – changes in hormones
- a weakened immune system (eg, treatment with steroids, HIV, diseases of the immune system) – makes it easier for the body to get infections
Yeast infections can be transmitted through sexual activity. However, celibate (not sexually active) women can also get yeast infections, so it is not your ‘typical’ sexually transmitted infection.
What’s the Connection Between Birth Control and Yeast Infections?
It is thought that estrogen helps support the growth of Candida. The risk of yeast infection increases with increased levels of estrogen – including pregnancy or with forms of birth control that have high levels of estrogen.
Different types of contraception have different levels (and sometimes forms) of hormones. For this reason, women who have trouble with yeast infections or are concerned about this risk can consider asking their doctors about a different type of birth control.
How Are Yeast Infections Treated?
Most vaginal yeast infections are easily treated with anti-fungal medications. These are available as creams, suppositories, and oral medications. It’s important to seek help if treatment does not work or the infection returns.
Unfortunately, some women struggle with recurrent infections, and the Candida yeast can cause other types of infections as well. Because Candida infections are so common, researchers have been working on a vaccine to prevent these infections for years. Developing a vaccine has proven to be difficult for many reasons, however. Candida lives in many parts of the body (called normal ‘flora’), and scientists need to be careful not to disrupt any of its normal functions. Nothing is available right now, but research continues in this area.