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Thrush (candidiasis)

Thrush is a yeast infection that is caused by a fungus that lives naturally in the body. It’s not a sexually transmitted infection, but it can be passed on during sex.

Most men won’t get thrush, but it’s estimated that three out of four women will develop it at some point in their lives. It is a very common cause of unusual vaginal discharge.

Thrush symptoms can be caused by a number of triggers, for example, antibiotics, pregnancy, using products that cause irritation to the vagina such as highly perfumed bubble bath or vaginal deodorant. Sometimes thrush can happen if you have other illnesses – for example uncontrolled diabetes. 

You can read about thrush in more detail below.

Signs and symptoms of thrush (male and female)

Symptoms of thrush can include:

  • A vaginal discharge that has no smell but is either thick and white (a bit like cottage cheese) or thin and watery
  • A cottage cheese-like discharge under the foreskin that may smell 
  • Itching and soreness around the vagina entrance
  • Stinging when you wee 
  • In men, the penis may become sore, itchy and inflamed
  • In more serious cases, you may experience swelling of the vagina and cracked skin around the entrance

The causes of thrush

Thrush is a yeast infection caused by fungus that exists naturally in the body.

With vaginal thrush, it can develop when conditions in the vagina change – such as when taking antibiotics, when hormone changes occur due to pregnancy, when you have diabetes or if your immune system is weak.

Taking antibiotics will cause thrush in about a third of women because they kill off the good bacteria in the vagina. 

The fungus that causes thrush tends to grow in warm, moist conditions, which means it is important to dry your penis carefully after washing. Using soaps and shower gels containing perfume can also trigger thrush.

Testing for thrush

Thrush can usually be easily diagnosed by describing your symptoms to or being examined at your GP surgery or sexual health clinic such as Brook. 

You will be asked some questions about your symptoms, whether you’ve had thrush before and whether you’re taking antibiotics for something else.

If you keep experiencing thrush or if you have an STI, you may need to provide a swab. This is to ensure that you are given the most appropriate treatment.

The swab looks like a small cotton bud, which is wiped over the affected area. Taking the swab may be slightly uncomfortable but should not be painful.

The swab will be used to see if you have a yeast infection and may also be used to look for a sexually transmitted infection (STI). If you are having recurrent symptoms of thrush the doctor or nurse at the sexual health clinic may suggest that you go and see your GP for further health tests.

Treatment of thrush

Although you can buy treatments for thrush at the chemist, it’s always best to get it diagnosed by a doctor or nurse first; this is because lots of other infections can have similar symptoms and you may not get the right treatment for you.

Treatment may include a combination of pills and also cream or pessaries. A pessary is a sort of pill that you insert into your vagina usually overnight. The pessary dissolves in the vagina. Cream is applied to the genital area. The doctor or nurse will advise you how to use the treatment. In men, treatment usually involves a cream that you apply to the area affected.

Some people seem to get recurrent thrush others seem to only have one episode. If you find that you are getting repeated symptoms it is important to go to seek medical advice for further management.

Some thrush treatments can weaken latex condoms, diaphragms and caps. Ask the staff at the clinic or pharmacist for further advice.

Find out more detailed information of types of anti-vaginal thrush medication.

Sometimes other factors can make thrush worse and it may be that you notice a pattern – you may be able to help control it. For example 

  • Avoid wearing tight, restrictive or synthetic clothing – for example tights and nylon underwear
  • Women should wash and wipe the genital area from front to back
  • Avoid highly perfumed soap, bubble bath, genital sprays and deodorants.

Even though thrush is not a sexually transmitted infection it is probably best to avoid sex until your thrush has cleared up. Vaginal sex may be uncomfortable and it may be that you can pass on thrush to your partner. However if your partner does not have any symptoms then there is no need for treatment.

Before taking any medication you should always inform the doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you think you may be pregnant. If you are pregnant then you should use the cream and pessaries and not the oral tablets. Thrush is not harmful to you or the baby. 

Page last reviewed: August 2015
Next review due: August 2017