If you happen to be male, you may want to skip this post. Especially if you are one of my male relatives or friends who has griped about being squicked out by previous vagina-related posts. Guess what, fellas? You need to grow the fuck up. This is a women’s website and we are committed to talking openly about women’s health issues, because they are important and–in my opinion–the more we talk about them in a healthy, open way, the better. If talking about vaginas grosses you out, that’s your problem, not ours. So if you continue reading after the jump, I don’t want to hear any whining after the fact. You’ve been warned!
I got my first yeast infection when I was 19, not surprisingly, right after I had intercourse for the first time. Having consulted my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves –this was before college students had easy access to the interwebz–I was fairly sure that my symptoms were a yeast infection. I presented myself to a doctor at the student health center of my small Southern university and told them I thought I had a yeast infection and probably had one a month ago too. A quick look and the doctor agreed. Then, without further ado, she explained that recurrent yeast infections can be symptomatic of immunodeficiency, including HIV infection, and I should have an HIV test immediately. No questions about my sex life, my diet, whether I was taking any prescription drugs or anything else that might have explained why I was prone to yeast infections. And forget about the one-minute conversation that would have revealed that I had slept with only one person in my entire life, that we had used condoms, and so I was about as low-risk for HIV as you can possibly get.
The whole thing was a giant women’s health FAIL. The student health center at my alma mater was notoriously alarmist when it came to sexual health. Any opportunity for a “teachable moment” about safe sex and they pounced, even when there was no actual cause for alarm. Hence, I was being told that a very common vaginal infection, treatable with over the counter meds, was possibly caused by a deadly STI. It was like saying “You have a cold but you could be coughing because you also have lung cancer too.” I freaked out and phoned my mom, who called bullshit immediately and volunteered to pay for a trip to a private gynecologist. That doctor cheerfully diagnosed the infection, handed me a sample pack of Monistat, told me to buy more at the drugstore if I needed it and to keep using rubbers. Sanity prevailed.
Still, in my twenties, I kept having problems with yeast. The infections would come and go, often in the first week after my period and generally any time my ladyparts were seeing a lot of action. It got so I would have one pretty much every other month. Reader, it sucked.
Desperate to escape the itching and burning, I tried every remedy I could get my hands on. I ate a sugar- and yeast-free diet. I used prescription-strength anti-yeast creams, one of which napalmed my vagina so badly I wound up sobbing in my bathtub in the middle of the night, flooding my crotch with cold water. I took acidophilus pills. I ate gallons of yogurt. I applied yogurt to the affected region (plain yogurt can be helpful if you can’t get hold of Monistat). On vacation in Barcelona, I was forced to march into a pharmacy and announce in my best Spanish, “I have an infection of the yeast in my vagina,” using the word for baker’s yeast, which was the only one I knew. The pharmacist–a woman, fortunately–just giggled and handed me a pack of Monistat 3.
The good news is that the infections subsided as I got older. I don’t know if my hormones changed, or my body adjusted better to sex, or what. But for the infrequent flare-ups, I also found a pretty good silver bullet: boric acid capsules.
Boric acid was prescribed for me by a gynecologist who was one of New York’s leading experts in vaginal flora and fauna. It’s a poisonous powder that when used vaginally, acidifies the vagina and helps cut down on unfriendly yeast and bacteria (it’s also good for controlling bacterial vaginosis). Also, you can scatter boric acid along your baseboards and under your sink to keep out ants and roaches–its most common use.
I first got the capsules from Bigelow’s Pharmacy in Greenwich Village–you need a genuine compounding pharmacy to make up the capsules. Or you can make the capsules yourself, using plain empty gelatin capsules from a health food store and pharmaceutical grade boric acid, which you can buy at Walgreens or Drugstore.com. You put the capsules in at the first sign of the dreaded itchy burn, and then keep using them for about a week or so. For me, it almost always did the trick, and it’s much gentler than Monistat.
One important caveat: do not ever let your partner go down on you while you’re using boric acid. It’s poison, after all. Thou shalt wait at least 24 hours before letting anyone yodel in your valley. (I often thought that boric acid poisoning by cunnilingus would make an awesome plot twist on a Law & Order episode).
Some of my girlfriends and I refer to ourselves as the “Sisterhood of the Fiery Vulva,” or SFV for short. We have all been martyrs to the yeast at one time or another, often for years. Many of them have taken my doctor’s advice and now make the boric acid capsules for themselves. One friend has a husband who jokingly refers to them as “depth charges.” Unfortunately, yeast infections are one of those indignities that nearly all of us live with: one of the harpies just told me she’d had a bad yeast experience recently, although another–the lucky bitch–said that she’d never had a single one.
Yeast infections, like HPV, are such a common experience, but women often actively avoid discussing them. After all, it’s icky–all that itching and burning and discharge! And as I discovered at the student health center, even a yeast infection–which is often not caused by anything sexual–can lead to slut-shaming. Talking openly about this stuff is the only way to normalize and de-stigmatize it. So if you’re a Sister of the FV, feel free to chime in in the comments…