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Candidiasis: Yeast Infections Caused by Candida albicans

Candidiasis: Yeast Infections Caused by Candida albicans
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  • 1:21 Candida albicans
  • 2:27 Candidiasis
  • 3:26 Vulvovaginitis
  • 5:26 Thrush
  • 6:15 Gastrointestinal Candidiasis
  • 7:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

Your body is teeming with microorganisms that normally live in perfect balance without you ever knowing they are there. Candida albicans is one fungal member of this group, but upset the balance and Candida can cause some very unpleasant diseases.

The Cold War

I was born and grew up during the '80s and I remember the Cold War. It seemed like every nightly news report had a segment about U.S. / Soviet relations. I never really paid much attention to the reports, as I was far more occupied playing with my toys or bugging my older sisters. As a child, I never really grasped the long history and tension that existed between the two superpowers. It didn't sink in how the arms race kept escalating, but no one, thankfully, ever gained the upper hand. The United States and the Soviet Union were able to coexist on Earth precisely because neither could get far enough ahead to take over.

This might seem like an odd intro for a lesson about fungal infections, but the parallels are actually quite appropriate. Simmering on the surface and deep inside your body, a cold war is occurring between your microbes, also known as your microbial flora. Fungi, bacteria, viruses, and protozoa are living on and in you in perfect balance. If you're feeling well, it means no one group has gained the upper hand. But, enjoy the stalemate while it lasts. At any time, conditions can shift, thrusting your flora to the brink of full-scale war.

Candida Albicans

One major player in this cold war is Candida albicans, a dimorphic fungus capable of causing a variety of diseases in susceptible individuals. Usually referred to as simply Candida, this fungus is normally present in the skin, mouth, vagina, and gastrointestinal tract of healthy people. While colonizing your body, which should be a stable 37 degrees Celsius, Candida exists as a single-celled yeast. When Candida is cultured in a lab setting below body temperature, it grows in filaments, similar to the classic bread mold fungus. This fascinating ability to grow in two different forms is what makes Candida a dimorphic fungus.

Candida doesn't normally cause disease despite it being so widespread within the body, because the other members of the normal flora and your immune system keep it from overgrowing. Candida also plays its own part in the cold war by preventing other microbes from getting ahead. As long as everything remains healthy and conditions don't change, this delicate peace can be maintained.

Candidiasis

Most people will never get sick from their resident Candida, but there are several things that can lead to outbreaks. Any illness that impairs the immune system can leave the body in a weakened state, unable to successfully control the growth of Candida and resulting in disease. AIDS patients, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and patients on high doses of corticosteroids are the classic examples of people with chronically suppressed immune systems. Also, anything that disrupts the normal microbial community can lead to illnesses associated with Candida. Antibiotics can disrupt or reduce the bacterial populations in the body, allowing the fungal Candida to overgrow and cause disease.

Candidiasis is any disease caused by the fungus Candida. Causes and symptoms are dependent on the part of the body infected. There are three major body systems impacted by Candidiasis, so we will examine each individually.

Vulvovaginitis

Probably the most common place for Candidiasis is in the vagina, causing vulvovaginitis, or inflammation of the vulva and vagina. This is commonly known as a yeast infection. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 20 million women will suffer from a Candida-caused yeast infection every year. Anything that disrupts the normal vaginal flora has the potential to lead to a yeast infection. Antibiotics, pregnancy, birth control, tight fitting undergarments, sexual contact, and diabetes are just a few of the possible causes.

There is a diverse, normal, and healthy microbial flora associated with the vagina. One of the most abundant and important members of the vaginal flora is Lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is what is called a lactic acid bacteria, so called because it is able to ferment organic substrates and produce lactic acid.

The lactic acid is released into the vaginal environment, and contributes to keeping the pH of the vagina low. This low pH slows the growth of yeasts, like Candida, protecting against infection. Using antibiotics or otherwise disrupting the normal vaginal flora can decrease the number of Lactobacillus. As the production of lactic acid decreases, the pH increases, allowing Candida populations to explode.

The most common symptoms of vulvovaginitis include itchiness, internal burning pain, redness, swelling, and white, cheesy discharge. Usually these symptoms are sufficient for diagnosis. Attempting to positively identify Candida can be difficult because it is a member of the normal flora and is expected to be present. Treatment is usually considered safe and effective enough that it is employed even if the infection is just suspected to be Candida. There are many over-the-counter medicines, as well as prescriptions, like the antifungal Nystatin, that have been shown to be 80-90% effective at eliminating infections.

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