How to Treat and Prevent Vaginal Infections When Training
Runners, it’s time we normalise a common (but not often spoken about) inconvenience that we’re occasionally burdened with: an itchy crotch.
Running is an empowering sport. However, when you begin to feel irritated or itchy down there, that confidence can begin to dissipate, or, at the very least, you may just feel annoyed. It’s possible that you’re dealing with a yeast infection or maybe even bacterial vaginosis (BV)—and some people are more prone to these types of vaginal infections than others.
If you are someone who’s susceptible to either or both infections, running long distances could exacerbate your risk of developing an infection down under. The good news? They’re both completely treatable and may even be preventable.
There are several ways you can attempt to stave off these types of vaginal infections. But before we share some of these tips, Stacy De-Lin, M.D., a gynaecologist and family planning specialist, explains what each infection is and lends insight into how you might get them. After all, knowledge is power, right?
What is bacterial vaginosis?
“You have a blend of bacteria and yeast in your vagina that’s naturally occurring, and bacterial vaginosis occurs when there’s an overgrowth of a certain type of bacteria in your vagina,” De-Lin tells Runner’s World.
When that balance gets disrupted, you may start to notice some of these several common symptoms.
- A thin gray discharge
- Discomfort or irritation
- A fish-like odour
“We don’t know what causes it necessarily—some people are just more prone to it than others—but we do know there are things you can do that can make it more likely,” says De-Lin.
Douching and using fragranced products, such as scented pads and vaginal wipes, can increase the risk of BV, for example. De-Lin adds that having sex used to be thought of as a potential cause for BV, however experts no longer think that’s the case.
What is a yeast infection?
Also known as candidiasis, De-Lin says that a yeast infection describes the imbalance of yeast and healthy bacteria in the vagina. So when someone has a vaginal yeast infection, it just means they have an overgrowth of yeast in that region.
Here are the most common symptoms, De-Lin says.
- Feeling itchy (De-Lin says a yeast infection is “often much more strongly associated with itching”)
- A thick cottage cheese-like vaginal discharge
- Having visible redness or irritation on the vulva
Unlike BV, we have more information about what causes yeast infections. In fact, underlying conditions such as type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, or any health issue that compromises the immune system can all make the vagina more susceptible to yeast overgrowth.
What’s more, De-Lin notes that taking a course of antibiotics can also increase the likelihood of infection as it kills off all bacteria—including the healthy kind.
Why are long-distance runners more susceptible to BV or a yeast infection?
In warmer weather the risks of dealing with either infection are even higher, and that’s simply because we’re sweating a lot more while running.
“For runners, you’re sweating a lot into your underwear and all of the friction that happens with running can definitely lead to an increase in yeast, and it can cause that yeast to multiply,” says De-Lin. “It’s more common for runners to have that external yeast infection.”
When this occurs on a penis, it’s often referred to as “jock itch,” whereas when this occurs on the vulva, it’s referred to as an “external yeast infection.”
How can you lower your risk of both BV and yeast infections?
Tip 1: Ditch the nylon undies.
Your gynaecologist or physician may have told you once before that cotton underwear is the best choice for avoiding yeast infections. However, De-Lin says that it may not be that limiting. In fact, it may come down to trial and error to see what works best for your body.
“I kind of tell patients to figure it out for themselves. Cotton is much better than a nylon-type underwear, which will just trap moisture,” says De-Lin. “Cotton can absorb moisture, which can pull it away from the vulva, but then what’s sort of counter to that is if you wear the [cotton] underwear for a very long time, there can be moisture contained there.”
There’s also underwear that’s marketed as “sweat wicking,” which works well for some, but for others, it can be irritating to their vulva. The key may be to single out which pairs of underwear are causing flare-ups—so don’t go out and buy all cotton or all sweat wicking underwear until you figure it out.
Tip 2: After you’re done running, get out of your sweaty underwear or shorts immediately.
One of the worst things you can do after a long run is sit around in sweat-filled clothes.
“Whenever you finish exercising, it’s a good idea to have a spare pair of underwear or to go without underwear afterwards so that you’re not having any of these wet surfaces adhering to your body for long periods of time,” says De-Lin. “Normalising not wearing underwear, I think, is a good thing after a run—it’s fine not to wear underwear!”
In fact, you should also ditch your sweaty sports bra after a run, too. As De-Lin notes, the area beneath your breasts can trap sweat in and the friction caused by an ill-fitting sports bra can increase the likelihood of getting a yeast infection on the skin. An external yeast infection under the breasts looks like a rash that appears red or reddish brown, is raised, and may even itch.
People with larger breasts are especially susceptible, as their breasts are more likely to rub against the skin and upper torso than smaller ones. To help prevent this, De-Lin advises finding a supportive sports bra that lifts the breasts up toward the chest.
Tip 3: Find shorts that fit well and reduce friction against the skin.
Running without underwear? Use the same trial and error method De-Lin recommends you try with your underwear with your shorts as well, because, again, it largely comes down to the individual. Is it better to wear shorts with built-in mesh-like underwear or to “go commando” and just wear compression shorts? Instead of trying to bucket your shorts into categories, De-Lin encourages runners to be cognisant of which shorts are causing the most friction down there. (Hint: This is why doctors, including De-Lin, often advise against running in thongs!)
“If you’re wearing Spanx that are kind of loosely-fitting but still tight, they can cause irritation on the vulva,” De-Lin. “Generally, Spanx or biker shorts keep skin from rubbing against itself and help to protect skin, but may not breathe well, so changing shortly after exercise would be the best for skin.”
So if you’re going to wear compression shorts on your long-runs, you’ll want to seek out pairs that are form-fitting. But again, make sure to strip out of them right after you’re done exercising.
Tip 4: Stay away from the “feminine wipes.”
The vagina is both powerful and efficient—it cleans itself via discharge, so you don’t have to feel the need to use products that claim to maintain or restore pH balance.
“There are a lot of products out there that say you can use these wipes to help you become more fresh if you can’t get into a shower, and those are often loaded with things that are very irritating to the skin that have fragrances that actually can lead to more yeast and more BV,” says De-Lin.
If you cannot get into a shower straight after your run, don’t sweat it (quite literally). The main priority should be to get out of your wet clothes and then, when you do have the opportunity to shower, De-Lin says to wash the vulva only using water. If you are going to use soap, use unscented soap, but in small amounts and only externally.
The Bottom line
Remember, if you do get a yeast infection or BV, know that they happen sometimes and that’s okay—both are treatable through medication. While De-Lin assures that not treating a yeast infection isn’t life-threatening by any means, symptoms can worsen (i.e. more itching and irritation). Worst-case scenario, it could develop into severe vulvar candidiasis and experience skin breakdown which could then lead to painful skin ulceration.
If you leave BV untreated, your risk for contracting an STD increases. In some cases, De-Lin adds, untreated BV can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or, if pregnant, can increase the risk of premature birth.
If you suspect that you have either infection, make an appointment to see your doctor.