If you've ever had a yeast infection, I'm guessing you have every intention of avoiding them in the future.
While they're not necessarily dangerous, yeast infections are exceptionally uncomfortable. Most commonly characterized by an itching, burning sensation in the vagina that makes sex and urinating painful, yeast infections can occur in any part of the body where moisture is easily trapped, like folds in the stomach or the area underneath the breasts.
In an effort to help you say goodbye to yeast infections for good, I got in touch with OB/GYN Shannon Clark, and she had a lot to stay on the subject—especially as far exercise is concerned.
First, the bad news: Exercise can cause yeast infections. The good news? There's a lot you can do about that correlation. Here's what you need to know.
What is yeast?
First, let's talk about what yeast actually is. Yes, yeast makes bread rise and it naturally occurs in every woman's vagina—one woman even made sourdough bread with her own yeast. We'll let you process that one for a second.
Yeast becomes a problem only when there's an overgrowth. "Yeast is a fungus (most commonly Candida albicans) that normally inhabits the vagina, but not to the degree that it causes abnormal symptoms," says Shannon. "A woman becomes symptomatic when there is an overgrowth of yeast. An overgrowth can occur for any number of reasons—antibiotics, steroids, hormonal imbalance, diabetes—but the bottom line is that something has happened in the vaginal microbiome that causes normal bacteria and yeast to become unbalanced and an overgrowth of yeast occurs."
Here's when exercise can cause yeast infections.
While you should by no means stop exercising out of fear of developing a yeast infection, you should educate yourself on the correlation between the two—specifically when it comes to sweating.
"Exercise can lead to yeast infections if there is a lot of sweating, the workout is prolonged without showering, drying off, and changing clothes, or if there is prolonged friction or lack of access to ventilation to the vaginal area as seen with prolonged bike rides or spinning," explains Shannon. "Clothing that does not allow ventilation of the vaginal area or traps moisture near the skin may also cause yeast infections. This includes clothing that fits tightly in the vaginal area. Yeast loves a warm, moist environment. Exercise provides that exact environment."
What can you do to prevent them?
With that in mind, there are several steps you can take to avoid developing an exercise-related yeast infection. Shannon suggests being especially careful when picking out your clothing.
"If the exercise will be prolonged and/or you will be sweating a lot, wear loose clothing and cotton underwear or clothing that will absorb, or wick away, the moisture," she says. "It is also important to pick clothing that will not contribute to friction, especially if the exercise already causes friction in the vaginal area, i.e., cycling. Next, take breaks if you can to 'air out.'
"Allowing ventilation may decrease your risk of getting a yeast infection. Finally, shower, thoroughly dry off, and change clothing as soon as possible after exercising."
Other infections you should be wary of
Unfortunately, yeast infections aren't where it ends. Exercising in the wrong clothing and waiting too long to shower afterward can also cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bladder infections.
Still, don't fret! As we mentioned, yeast infections are pretty preventable—and even if you do get one, you can fight them naturally.