Is It Genital Herpes or a Yeast Infection?

Health Writer
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You have itching, irritation, a burning sensation, and vaginal discharge. Is it a yeast infection? Or could it be genital herpes?

While both can cause itching, irritation, and vaginal discharge changes in women, that is as far as the similarities go. Genital herpes and yeast infections have very different causes and very different treatments. But in the early stages of either condition, it can sometimes be hard to know the difference.

At the first sign of itching, you might head to the pharmacy for over-the-counter yeast infection medications. You might think it’s reasonable to assume you have a yeast infection — after all, three-fourths of women get a yeast infection at some time in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But by self-treating before getting a proper diagnosis, you might be doing more harm than good. Overtreating yeast infections can actually increase your resistance to treatments, and by self-diagnosing and treating, you could delay getting the treatment you really need.

Yeast infections: Symptoms and treatments

Yeast infections, also called candidiasis, are caused by an overabundance of Candida albicans. Your vagina normally has small amounts of yeast and is controlled by bacteria that live in your body. But when the balance is disrupted, the yeast can grow causing an infection.

This can be caused by antibiotic use or contraceptives and is more common in those with diabetes, impaired immunity, and obesity. Yeast infections are more common in hot or humid conditions.

Symptoms of yeast infection include:

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Thick white discharge that may be clumpy and resemble cottage cheese

Yeast infections are treated with antifungal medications. These are available over the counter or by prescription, but it is not recommended that you self-treat without first consulting with a doctor to confirm that you definitely have a yeast infection.

Studies show that two-thirds of women who buy over-the-counter yeast infection treatments don’t actually have a yeast infection. Additionally, some yeast infection medications can weaken condoms and diaphragms, making you more susceptible to getting pregnant or getting an STI, like herpes, according to WomensHealth.gov.

If you get recurrent yeast infections, you should talk to your doctor about other treatment methods.

Genital herpes: Symptoms and treatments

Early signs of genital herpes include itching, tingling, or burning sensations in the vaginal or anal area. You might also notice a change in your vaginal discharge, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. The first herpes outbreak is often accompanied by flu-like symptoms, including fever, body aches, and swollen glands.

The tell-tale sign of herpes is blisters on or around the genital area (you can also get herpes around the rectum and mouth). These blisters eventually break and become painful sores. Outbreaks are more frequent during the first year. Although there is no cure, the frequency generally decreases with each passing year.

Genital herpes is sexually transmitted. It is spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Using a condom decreases the risk, however, herpes is not always limited to areas covered by a condom and can spread through skin contact.

This condition, unlike a yeast infection, is treated with antiviral medications. These medications will not cure herpes, but they can help make outbreaks shorter, less severe and less frequent.

If genital herpes is not treated, you can touch sores and spread herpes to another part of your body, such as your mouth or eyes, according to the CDC.

The bottom line

Herpes and yeast infections are two separate conditions that require different treatments. If you’re not sure you have a yeast infection, it’s best to seek a doctor’s diagnosis before self-treating with over-the-counter yeast infection medication. Any persistent, uncomfortable symptoms in the genital area are a good reason to see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

See more helpful articles:

Yeast Infection vs. Bacterial Vaginosis

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Yeast Infections

10 Myths About Genital Herpes