Having a yeast infection can make the ordinary discomforts women routinely endure (thong underwear, anyone?) seem like a walk in the park. A yeast infection can make simply walking in a straight line a heroic task.

If you've ever suffered from a yeast infection, at least you know you're not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, seventy-five percent of all women experience at least one vaginal candida or "yeast" infection during their lifetime.

The signs of a yeast infection include the following:

  • Vaginal itching
  • Vaginal burning and soreness
  • Thick whitish vaginal discharge
  • Pain or discomfort during intercourse.
  • Vaginal itching
  • Vaginal burning and soreness
  • Thick whitish vaginal discharge
  • Pain or discomfort during intercourse

The good news is that a yeast infection is not dangerous. It is usually not sexually transmitted. It does not spread to the ovaries or uterus. And it does not cause infertility.

Yeast's Preferred Environment "Yeast may be present in the vagina in small amounts, and there will be no symptoms. But if there's an increase in heat, moisture or blood, yeast grows more rapidly," according to William Parker, M.D., clinical professor at University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine and author of A Gynecologist's Second Opinion (Plume, 1996). Wearing panty hose, nylon underwear, tight clothing, or wet bathing suits traps heat and moisture, creating the tropical (think warm and moist) climate that yeast loves. Wearing loose fitting, cotton clothing may be your best bet if you want to avoid a yeast infection.

You're more susceptible to infection during and after your period because the candida feeds on the nutrient-rich menstrual blood. For some women, it's a recurring problem, although medical experts really don't know why, says Parker.

The following factors can also upset the pH balance of the vagina, increasing your odds of developing a yeast infection:

  • Taking birth control pills or antibiotics
  • Being pregnant
  • Having diabetes
  • Using douches
  • Stress

The Quick Fix Don't try to diagnose your very first yeast infection. Leave that to the medical experts. If you've had more than one, however, you've probably learned to recognize the symptoms. And you probably know what works best for you. Most infections do respond to over-the-counter drugs, antifungal medications administered directly into the vagina via creams, ointments, and suppositories. There is also a stronger oral medication available in the form of a pill (it's pink, of course). If the symptoms don't go away in five to seven days, visit your doctor for a check-up. The soothing cream you picked up at the drugstore might be masking a more serious sexually transmitted disease, such as chlamydia.

Alternative Therapies According to Tori Hudson, ND, clinical professor at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, OR, and author of Women's Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Keats Publishing, 1999), some women find that changing their diet helps prevent recurring infections. Hudson suggests avoiding foods with a lot of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, including alcohol.

Hudson also recommends eating eight ounces of unsweetened acidophilus yogurt (the kind with active cultures in it) every day. If you can't stomach the plain stuff, acidophilus supplements (available in health food stores) should work equally well. And when you're suffering from an infection, says Hudson, try adding garlic supplements to your diet (garlic is a natural antifungal treatment).

Here We Go Again If you've had four or more infections within a one-year period, you may be suffering from recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC). Doctors are still trying to figure out the most effective way to treat it. Many, including Parker, medicate intensely for one or two weeks and then again for three or four days following your next three menstrual periods when the yeast is more likely to flourish.

Prevention Tips The following measures can help reduce your risk of developing a yeast infection:

  • Keep the external genital area clean and dry.
  • After using the bathroom, always wipe front to back.
  • Avoid irritating soaps, bubble baths, and douches.
  • Change tampons and sanitary napkins frequently.
  • Avoid nylon underwear.
  • Change out of wet bathing suits or damp workout gear as quickly as possible.