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Vaginal yeast infection during pregnancy

Derrick Soong and Adrienne Einarson, RN

March 2009



My pregnant patients often present with symptomatic vaginal yeast infections. Are the medications commonly used for the management of yeast infections safe to use during pregnancy?


isting data indicate that exposure to oral and topical antifungals, topical antiseptics, or corticosteroids during pregnancy is not associated with increased risk of major malformations. Topical azole antifungals are the recommended treatment during pregnancy for at least 7 days owing to increased efficacy. Topical corticosteroids can be used for symptomatic relief.


Il arrive souvent que des patientes enceintes me consultent pour des infections vaginales symptomatiques à levures. Les médicaments habituellement utilisés pour le traitement des infections à levures sont-ils sans danger durant la grossesse?


Les données actuelles indiquent que l’exposition aux antifongiques topiques ou par voie orale, aux antiseptiques topiques ou aux corticostéroïdes durant la grossesse n’est pas associée à un risque accru de malformations importantes. On recommande comme traitement pendant la grossesse des antifongiques topiques azolés pendant au moins 7 jours étant donné leur plus grande efficacité. Les corticostéroïdes peuvent être utilisés pour le soulagement des symptômes.

Vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC), often referred to as a yeast infection, is a common gynecologic ailment, affecting 3 out of 4 women in their lifetimes.1 More than 40% of affected women will have 2 or more VVC episodes,2,3 and infection occurs more frequently in pregnant women. It is believed that higher estrogen levels and higher glycogen content in vaginal secretions during pregnancy increase a woman’s risk of developing VVC.4 As VVC is so common in women during their childbearing years, it is important to understand the pathology of this disease as well as the safety or risks of drugs used to treat it during pregnancy. 

Vulvovaginal candidiasis is caused by overabundant growth of yeast cells, belonging to the Candida species, in the vaginal mucosa. Candida albicans infection occurs in the vast majority (80% to 90%) of diagnosed VVC cases, while infection with other species, such as Candida glabrata or Candida tropicalis, occurs less frequently.5 With adequate pharmacotherapy and avoidance of contributing factors (eg, douching, wearing tight pants), VVC and associated symptoms resolve in a short period of time. There are several treatment options for Candida infection, such as antifungals and antiseptics, with corticosteroids as a useful addition for pruritus and erythema.


Antifungal agents commercially available for the treatment of VVC in Canada include the following: imidazole antifungals (eg, butoconazole, clotrimazole, miconazole), triazole antifungals (eg, fluconazole, terconazole), and polyene antifungals (eg, nystatin). These agents are available in oral and topical formulations. The topical formulations of imidazole and triazole antifungals, collectively known as azole antifungals, are considered the therapy of choice during pregnancy owing to the safety data collected from animals as well as humans. Prospective and observational studies involving the use of topical antifungals did not reveal an increased risk of major malformations when mothers were exposed any time during pregnancy, and the authors considered them generally safe.6 Systemic absorption of these topical medications is minimal, posing little risk of transfer to the unborn baby. Azole therapy should be recommended for 7 days instead of a shorter duration because of improved treatment success.7,8

Oral fluconazole should be considered as a second-line therapy to treat VVC. There have been case reports in which fluconazole has been associated with major malformations, but only at higher doses (> 400 mg/d).9,10 There is no increased risk of major malformations associated with short-term use of 150 mg of fluconazole to treat VVC.11

Topical nystatin is a safe alternative to azole anti-fungals that has been extensively studied in the first trimester of pregnancy. As nystatin has negligible systemic absorption, no associated risk of major malformations has been observed in numerous trials.6 The recommended dose of nystatin during pregnancy is 100 000 units intravaginally once daily for 2 weeks.1


Boric acid has been studied in the treatment of VVC. Although it is not commercially available, boric acid is an alternative to the antifungal agents. There is little published information regarding the safety of boric acid in humans. A recent retrospective case-control study from Hungary suggested a weak association between boric acid exposure during pregnancy and major malformations, but the association did not reach statistical significance.12 Unless the vaginal epithelium is severely excoriated, only a limited amount of boric acid is systemically absorbed13; therefore, in most cases the amount absorbed through the vaginal mucosa is minimal and exposure risk to the unborn fetus is theoretical. The typical dose of boric acid is 600 mg intravaginally per night for 14 consecutive nights.14


Symptoms such as itchiness and redness commonly occur in VVC, and topical corticosteroids can be prescribed to alleviate these acute symptoms. The safety of corticosteroid use during pregnancy has been discussed in a previous Motherisk Update.15 A meta-analysis conducted by Park-Wyllie et al, combining 5 prospective human studies, found that for mothers who were exposed to oral corticosteroids, there was a non-significant increased odds ratio for total major malformations. There was a small but statistically significant increased risk of cleft palate compared with controls (odds ratio 3.35, 95% confidence interval 1.97 to 5.69).16 For topical corticosteroids, approximately 3% of the dose applied onto the skin is systemically absorbed.17 Two population-based studies found no increased risk of major malformations in the babies of mothers who used topical corticosteroids during pregnancy.18,19


It is important to treat VVC infections in pregnant women, and there are safe medications that can be used. Topical azole antifungals are well studied, commercially available, and do not require a physician’s prescription. Seven days of therapy is highly recommended, as shorter duration of treatment is associated with treatment failures. Alternatives to topical azoles include topical nystatin and oral fluconazole. Topical nystatin or oral fluconazole should be used if a patient cannot use topical azole antifungals. For symptomatic relief of redness or itchiness, short-term use of a low-potency topical corticosteroid is considered safe to use in pregnancy.


  1. Das Neves J, Pinto E, Teixeira B, Dias G, Rocha P, Cunha T, et al. Local treatment of vulvovaginal candidosis: general and practical considerations. Drugs 2008;68(13):1787–802. [Medline]
  2. Ferrer J. Vaginal candidosis: epidemiological and etiological factors. Int J Gynaecol Obstet 2000;71(Suppl_1):S21–7. [Medline]
  3. Eschenbach DA. Chronic vulvovaginal candidiasis. N Engl J Med 2004;351(9):851–2. [CrossRef]
  4. Monif GR, Baker DA, Monif GR, Baker DA, Candida albicans. Infectious diseases in obstetrics and gynecology. 5th ed ed. New York, NY: Parthenon Press; 2003. p. 405–21.
  5. Baron EJ, Cassell GH, Duffy LB, Eschenbach JR, Greenwood SM, Harvey NE, et al, Baron EJ, Laboratory diagnosis of female genital tract infections. Cumulative techniques and procedures in clinical microbiology (Cumitech) 17A. Washington, DC: ASM Press; 1993. p. 1–28.
  6. King CT, Rogers PD, Cleary JD, Chapman SW. Antifungal therapy during pregnancy. Clin Infect Dis 1998;27(5):1151–60. [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  7. Doering PL, Santiago TM. Drugs for treatment of vulvovaginal candidiasis: comparative efficacy of agents and regimens. DICP 1990;24(11):1078–83. [Medline]
  8. Young GL, Jewell D. Topical treatment for vaginal candidiasis (thrush) in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2001;4:CD000225, 10.1002/14651858.CD000225. [Medline]
  9. Lee BE, Feinberg M, Abraham JJ, Murthy AR. Congenital malformations in an infant born to a woman treated with fluconazole. Pediatr Infect Dis J 1992;11(12):1062–4. [Medline]
  10. Pursley TJ, Blomquist IK, Abraham J, Andersen HF, Bartley JA. Fluconazole-induced congenital anomalies in three infants. Clin Infect Dis 1996;22(2):336–40. [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  11. Nørgaard M, Pedersen L, Gislum M, Erichsen R, Søgaard KK, Schonheyder HC, et al. Maternal use of fluconazole and risk of congenital malformations: a Danish population-based cohort study. J Antimicrob Chemother 2008;62(1):172–6. Epub 2008 Apr 9. [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  12. Acs N, Bánhidy F, Puhó E, Czeizel AE. Teratogenic effects of vaginal boric acid treatment during pregnancy. Int J Gynaecol Obstet 2006;93(1):55–6. Epub 2006 Mar 10. [Medline]
  13. Fail PA, Chapin RE, Price CJ, Heindel JJ. General, reproductive, developmental and endocrine toxicity of boronated compounds. Reprod Toxicol 1998;12(1):1–18. [CrossRef]
  14. Pappas PG, Rex JH, Sobel JD, Filler SG, Dismukes WE, Walsh TJ, et al. Guidelines for the treatment of candidiasis. Clin Infect Dis 2004;38(2):161–89. Epub 2003 Dec 19. [Free Full Text]
  15. Oren D, Nulman I, Makhija M, Ito S, Koren G. Using corticosteroids during pregnancy. Are topical, inhaled, or systemic agents associated with risk? Can Fam Physician 2004;50:1083–5. [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  16. Park-Wyllie L, Mazzotta P, Pastuszak A, Moretti ME, Beique L, Hunnisett L, et al. Birth defects after maternal exposure to corticosteroids: prospective cohort study and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Teratology 2000;62(6):385–92. [Medline]
  17. Tauscher AE, Fleischer AB Jr, Phelps KC, Feldman SR. Psoriasis and pregnancy. J Cutan Med Surg 2002;6(6):561–70. Epub 2002 Oct 9. [Medline]
  18. Czeizel AE, Rockenbauer M. Population-based case-control study of teratogenic potential of corticosteroids. Teratology 1997;56(5):335–40. [Medline]
  19. Mygind H, Thulstrup AM, Pedersen L, Larsen H. Risk of intrauterine growth retardation, malformations and other birth outcomes in children after topical use of corticosteroid in pregnancy. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand 2002;81(3):234–9. [CrossRef]
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