Why We Need To Teach Thrush In Schools

thrush female sexual health

In the algorithm of illnesses, thrush is the one that always pops up at the top of my body’s feed.

At least three times a year, my flatmates would find me crying in the kitchen, box of pessaries in one hand and a tub of natural yoghurt in the other, complaining that my vagina was stinging. I’d bought Canesten so many times that I deserved shares in the business and had had more than enough awkward conversations with pharmacists about my discharge.

For those who have never had it, the NHS describes thrush as a “common yeast infection” which is “usually harmless but it can be uncomfortable”. Symptoms include white discharge, itchiness around the genitals and irritation during sex, and although It can affect every gender, people with vaginas are more likely to suffer, with 75% experiencing thrush within their lifetime.

My Worst Bout of Thrush

My worst bout of thrush occurred earlier this year. It was the 6th January, the NYE espresso martinis had finally worked their way out of my bloodstream and I was hoping the ‘New Year, New Me’ mantra would apply to my vaginal health. Unfortunately, as I sat in the library, pulling an all-nighter to finish an essay about modernist poetry; I knew immediately I had made a rookie error. I had worn jeans.

Once you’ve had a health problem, I believe you enter a continuous conversation within your body – an intimate channel of communication that identifies the smallest change in conditions. For me, wearing clothes that are too tight is a huge trigger for my thrush and so I have to constantly check in with my vagina to make sure it’s happy. On this day, my body was not happy and I knew instantly that I was going to wake up with thrush.

The War Against Women

We have to question the constraints of the fashion industry when the clothes we buy make us physically unwell. Even the best fitting trousers make an indent on our waists, or underwired bras dig into our rib cages. Women’s clothes are not made for their bodies. Instead they seem to fulfil Instagram trends, and flaunt the contours of our bodies, regardless of the consequences.

But even more than this: women’s bodies aren’t built to fit the mould society makes for us. We expect women to be hairless, and yet pubic hair acts as a barrier for bacteria, reducing the likelihood of infection. Products like Femfresh ‘clean’ the vagina and rid it of its entirely natural smell, but these soaps are proven to cause itching, burning and long-term damage (aka thrush) to such a sensitive area. Even under our clothes, Love Island’s high leg bikinis, and the influence of porn has meant the expected underwear for women is a thong – conveniently also the underwear style most likely to cause irritation and, you guessed it, thrush.

The Start of ‘Super Thrush’

The only advantage of thrush was knowing that one over the counter pill could fix it. But, for the first time ever, Canesten didn’t fix me. Not only was I £15 worse off and still burning, but I now had an added anxiety that this was never going to go away.

A few weeks later, I spoke to a pharmacist again, and they suggested I tried a pessary – a little capsule that’s inserted directly into the vagina. I was optimistic that this would work, seeing as it was going straight to the source of the problem, but all I was left with was incredibly chalky discharge and another £15 dent in my wallet.

It had been just over a month since I first experienced symptoms and therefore this had become my longest experience with a yeast infection. With GP waiting lists hitting the 8 week mark and my pharmacy fixes consistently failing, I knew the best place for me would be our sexual health clinic. But honestly I was terrified. What if they told me this was incurable? Or a sign of infertility? Or cervical cancer? Perhaps not knowing was better than knowing the truth.

Eventually I plucked up the courage and made an appointment at the clinic, on Valentine’s Day, of all days. The consultant was wonderful and immediately put me at ease. She did an examination, which was a little uncomfortable – but nowhere near the Victorian medicine level I was expecting – and immediately identified inflammation caused by a rather nasty yeast infection. As I’d already tried medication twice and it had persisted, she described it as a ‘super thrush’. She gave me some more medication and an emollient cream and, miraculously, within a few days I’d recovered. 6 weeks of pain fixed overnight.

Vaginal Health Is Physical Health

What’s most shocking is that, while this had been my reality for almost two months, the education around thrush was so minimal. Throughout my own school life, we’d been lectured about teen pregnancy and chlamydia, as if women’s health was synonymous with not having a baby and using a condom.

The National Curriculum states that sex education should cover ‘reproduction, sexuality and sexual health’, but nowhere does it mention health infections like UTI’s, BV, and thrush, which affect more people than gonorrhea. We are leaving young people unequipped to understand the most common issues that their bodies could face.

Over lockdown, while waxing studios were closed and we all lived in trackies, my vaginal health was better than ever and I think I’ve finally learnt what my body needs to stay healthy. It shouldn’t take trial and error or personal guesswork to get to this point. We should be educating everyone on these common infections, teaching them how to prevent them, and where to go if they occur. Until sexual health includes more than STIs, we are disregarding the severity of these illnesses and leaving young people unable to control their physical health.

Words by Jess Herbert

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