Vaginal Yeast Infections Are a Side Effect of Chemotherapy

Understanding Vaginal Candidiasis in Women With Cancer

Thoughtful Bald Young Woman With Cancer At Home
Pantea Naghavi Anaraki / EyeEm / Getty Images

A vaginal yeast infection (vaginal candidiasis) is a common side effect of cancer treatment. While these fungal infections are frequently seen in healthy women, the likelihood of developing one is increased when using chemotherapy drugs, steroids, and strong antibiotics.

While yeast infections are typically uncomplicated, they are bothersome and indicative of a suppressed immune system.

How Chemotherapy Contributes to Vaginal Candidiasis

During chemotherapy, the drugs target cells like cancer that have a high mitotic rate (meaning that they divide rapidly).

Unfortunately, the medications also target healthy cells that are fast-dividing, including those of the bone marrow.

Bone marrow is responsible for producing many of the white blood cells central to our immune defense. When bone marrow function is suppressed, the white blood cell count plummets, resulting in a condition known as neutropenia.

Without the immune cells to defend against infection, any fungi that the body can otherwise control suddenly have the opportunity to multiply and thrive.

The use of high-dose antibiotics can also contribute by changing the vaginal flora of women on therapy. This imbalance can spur the overgrowth of the fungi responsible for both vaginal candidiasis and oral candidiasis (thrush).

In persons with fully compromised immune systems, this overgrowth can turn deadly, leading to infections of the digestive tract and the spread (dissemination) of fungi through the bloodstream.

Symptoms of Vaginal Candidiasis

The symptoms of vaginal yeast infections are often persistent and can range from mild to severe. The most common signs include:

    Treating Vaginal Candidiasis

    Some women with vaginal yeast infections have found relief with the use of probiotics foods or supplements. Probiotic foods contain live acidophilus bacteria in products like yogurt, miso, kefir, and some fortified milk. Check the product labeling for the words "probiotic" or "acidophilus" as not all yogurts are probiotic.

    Probiotics supplements are sold in capsule form at most larger pharmacies.

    Before using any over-the-counter treatment, always speak with your doctor. Depending on the severity, an infection may need to be treated with prescription-strength topical antifungals. Oral medications are more typically used for severe outbreaks or outbreaks that occur on multiple parts of the body.

    Preventing Yeast Infections

    During chemotherapy, it is often difficult for the body to ward off even simple infections like candidiasis. It is, therefore, important to take extra measures to reduce your risk of getting this all-too-common condition:

    • Avoid wearing nylon and Lycra underpants.
    • Avoid pantyhose or, at the very least, wear cotton underpants beneath them.
    • Avoid wearing swimsuits or leotards for extended periods of time.
    • Avoiding tight pants.
    • Do not douche.
    • Use water-based vaginal lubricants instead of petroleum jelly-based ones.
    • Wipe front to back after emptying your bladder.

    Based on your personal history and current state of health, your doctor may also opt to prescribe a vaginal cream or suppository to better avoid a yeast infection.