I have suffered from chronic yeast infections for 19 years

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I’ve had a yeast infection every month for the last five years. Usually, the infections begin with a mild irritation that turns into itching, then a burning sensation, and finally a discharge. Because I’ve been through so many, I can feel the symptoms coming on early, like my personal radar. I am very attuned to any stinging, tingling, itching or tingling in my vaginal area – and they fill me with anxiety every time. Often pausing, I ponder each sensation: “Are these symptoms getting worse or are they finally going away?”

About five years ago I was diagnosed with recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC), also known as chronic yeast infection. RVVC is defined as having three or more yeast infections a year—but I get a lot more than that. Common symptoms for most people include vaginal itching, burning, irritation, and inflammation. Others experience abnormal discharge and painful sex or urination. believe it or not RVVC affects 6 million women in the US and is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms resemble those of other women. RVVC often takes an emotional and psychological toll, impacts relationships and intimacy, and generally affects your daily life.

My journey to an RVVC diagnosis was incredibly daunting, to say the least. I’m 45 now and have actually dealt with frequent yeast infections for 19 years. What causes them is unpredictable, as is how they are treated. Sometimes my infections can be treated within a week; sometimes it takes six weeks for a single fight. I can have a few months off here and there, but mostly my yeast infections follow my period each month.

For many conditions, a diagnosis usually enables a doctor to help you understand how a condition can be treated or treated. RVVC doesn’t have that convenience. I’m still looking for a treatment that will work long term or cure me. I take medication for my chronic yeast infections that I will have to take for the rest of my life. But there’s no certainty that they’ll clean up completely every time.

My first infection interrupted my pregnancy

I was diagnosed with my first yeast infection 19 years ago. My husband and I had been married for about three years and were expecting our first baby. Of course, as my baby grew, my body also changed and grew; everything felt different than normal – but that seemed natural.

The author pictured here is frankly caught in the middle of her first pregnancy.

Courtesy of Leslie Ivey

When I first experienced a slight itching in the vaginal area towards the end of my pregnancy, I thought, “Maybe it’s just like being pregnant?” The symptoms worsened and the itching and irritation gave way to burning and discharge. I quickly realized that this was not normal. My doctor confirmed it was a fungal infection. We treated it and within about a week my symptoms went away and I felt better.

Over the next decade we had two more children and I started getting more yeast infections – maybe once a year. They were easily treated with a quick visit to my gynecologist, who wrote me a prescription for fluconazole, a drug used to treat fungal infections, including yeast infections, and a week later I was back on track. I had assumed at this point that semi-frequent yeast infection was normal for me – and I accepted that.

However, the discharge, itching, and irritation occurred more frequently; about every three to four months. These increasingly chronic yeast infections were beginning to feel like a nuisance. My gynecologist has gotten used to my doctor visits and phone calls. The infections could still be treated quite well with fluconazole. I even had refills so I could start prescribing when I noticed another episode was coming.

Then, about five years ago, I started getting yeast infections even more frequently. They came on monthly and the regular fluconazole dose I was taking stopped working. At that time, my doctor diagnosed me with RVVC.

Sometimes I’d finish a course of treatment and be symptom free for a month or two, but other times the itching and irritation would return right away. My doctor adjusted the medication. Instead of taking one pill a week, I took three pills for the first week and one pill a week for six weeks. Luckily my insurance now covers everything. But I used to have a health insurance plan that only covered one fluconazole pill a month, so I had to pay for the others out of my own pocket, which was costly.

What had felt like a nuisance suddenly felt very much out of my control and I was really starting to feel like it was out of my doctor’s control as well. I worried, “What if we couldn’t figure out a way to handle this? What else should we do?” I was discouraged and exhausted.

Most treatments have not worked consistently

After I was diagnosed with RVVC I started researching to see if I could find something that would cure me of the constant yeast infections. I first tried over-the-counter medications like Monistat and eventually even turned to naturopathic treatments like adding vinegar to my baths and taking herbs and probiotics. But liquids, creams, pills, suppositories – nothing helped.

However, one thing worked a bit: on the advice of my doctor, I tried boric acid suppositories, which were supposed to regulate the pH levels in my vagina to reduce the chances that yeast could grow. I inserted a boric acid suppository every week for about a year. It worked for almost nine months, but now my body seems to be rejecting those too.

Over the years, other prescription drugs helped for a while and then stopped working. Fluconazole was the most successful treatment for me and I’m still taking it. Sometimes even fluconazole doesn’t completely clear the infection.

My chronic yeast infections affect my daily life

While my yeast infections can come out of nowhere, a few things trigger them, like staying in a wet bathing suit for too long, or exercising and not removing my sweaty clothes right away. I do my best to avoid these things, but it’s frustrating.

When I go to the pool with the kids or to the beach with my family, I sit on the sidelines. I’ll wade in ankle deep or sit with my feet on the edge of the pool knowing I’ll be battling a fungal infection next week if I dive in and enjoy the fun. You try to live life where you can, but there are definitely things that I now avoid completely because I know it will trigger another infection. But even if I avoid all triggers, I still have yeast infections.

leslie ivey rvvc life story essay
The author, 45, poses for a photo while adventuring with her husband Rob (right).

Courtesy of Leslie Ivey

The small adjustments in my life are my new normal. It is part of having this state. More than 95% of women with RVVC have had to make lifestyle adjustments as a result of the condition, and many struggle with their relationships.

I am fortunate to have a supportive husband. Every time a yeast infection occurs, he says, “Okay, we’ve got this.” My chronic yeast infections sometimes interfere with our ability to have a physical connection. And intimacy has to be interrupted for weeks when I’m struggling with an infection.

Taking vows at marriage “in sickness or in health” sounds all well and good. But when you have a woman who is physically itchy and emotionally irritated monthly, it can be a struggle. However, he would never complain. But I’ve learned that failed relationships are common at RVVC because it can interfere with your ability to be yourself and be intimate with someone.

I dream of a future where I don’t have to worry about that

Nineteen years later, it feels like there should be more answers than endless questions. I always look forward to when the next fungal infection returns. Also, at the moment, there is no FDA-approved drug that cures RVVC.

I think it’s important to reduce the stigma surrounding vaginal health and empower women with RVVC to seek help. I don’t think women talk about it much because it can be very embarrassing. Also, I don’t think everyone understands how yeast infections work; There is a myth that they are easy to prevent and always easy to cure.

My advice to other women dealing with chronic yeast infections like this is to develop a very close relationship with your doctor – someone you can trust to listen to your symptoms and work with you to find a plan that works for you. These professionals are not only our best advocates, but also our connection to research and resources to find a cure in the future. My healthcare providers have been with me on this journey, listening to my symptoms, adjusting treatments and continuing to look for new ways to treat ongoing issues.

RVVC is definitely not a thing I dreamed of championing. I never thought I would be the poster child for chronic yeast infections. And yet I know that my story is important and that it is like many other women whose voices may not be heard.

leslie ivey rvvc life story essay

Courtesy of Leslie Ivey

I look forward to a time when I can go about my everyday life without having to think about fungal infections. Where I can go swimming without fear of infection, or go on a long hike and really connect with nature – play volleyball and then go out to dinner without having to put on clean, dry clothes. I’d like to be at the point where I’m not over-analyzing every tiny feeling or stinging down there.

Despite everything, I consider myself lucky. I have a supportive network of family and friends who have been with me through tough times and of course celebrate when things are going well. And life can often distract me, which is a great thing. I have a job as a nutritionist, which also feels like a calling. And luckily there are many positive things in my life to forget the fear – my way of dealing with it is to just keep going.

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