Oral Thrush: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Oral thrush is a fungal infection that attacks the tissues of the mouth, and given that it affects millions of people every year, it is important to understand all the facts related to this relatively common condition.

What is Oral Thrush?

Oral thrush is a variety of fungal infection that attacks the tissues of the mouth, primarily on the tongue, gums, tonsils, roof of the mouth and inner cheeks. Oral thrush is caused by the Candida fungus, the same type of yeast that is responsible for vaginal yeast infection. As with so many other types of fungus and bacteria, there is already a considerable amount of this fungus in our mouths at all times. However, the immune balance of the body typically keeps this fungus in check. Unfortunately, when the bacterial balance of the mouth and body is altered for some reason, the candida fungus grows out of control, resulting in the numerous symptoms of this infection.

While most people don’t consider oral thrush to be particularly dangerous, if you already have a weakened immune system, this condition can have more serious or long-term side effects, and can spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, esophagus, liver or skin. The risk factors for this infection are numerous, and you may have a growing infection for a number of days before you even realize there is a problem. Therefore, it is critical to know the symptoms, causes and potential treatment methods for this aggressive fungal infection.

Symptoms of Oral Thrush

The most identifiable symptoms of oral thrush include small, white raised patches or lesions in the mouth. These areas will be small at first, but will eventually spread and become flaky and painful. If you rub or scrub these patches to remove them, you may cause them to bleed and the area becomes inflamed. The corners of your mouth may become dry and cracked, and your mouth will have an unpleasant cottony sensation. Some people even report losing their sense of taste in severe infections.

The real danger, however, is when the symptoms begin to appear in your throat. If left untreated, the lesions can spread past your tonsils and into your esophagus, resulting in even more negative side effects, such as painful swallowing, bleeding in the throat, or the sensation that something is perpetually caught in your throat. If the infection spreads to other organs, it can cause fever and more severe side effects, particularly in those with autoimmune diseases or previously weakened immune systems.

Causes of Oral Thrush

The root cause of this infection is the Candida fungus, one of the most common forms of yeast, and one that is responsible for a number of other potential infections around the body. As mentioned, this fungus is already present in the body but will take advantage of a weakened immune system to spread and grow within the oral cavity. In a normal situation, the body’s beneficial bacteria would prevent this sort of overgrowth.

While the cause of oral thrush is well understood, the risk factors for the overgrowth of this bacteria are much more wide-ranging, which is why it is so easy to develop this infection.

Risk Factors of Oral Thrush

Some of the most prominent risk factors for this fungal infection are stress, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease, HIV, hormonal fluctuations, and the use of certain medications.

Medications: If you regularly use an inhaler or have been prescribed antibiotics, prednisone or corticosteroids, you may be increasing your risk for developing oral thrush. This will change the immune system balance in your body and in your mouth, particularly if you don’t properly wash your mouth following use of an inhaler.

Hormones: Although hormones don’t seem closely tied to your oral health, any hormonal imbalance in the body can increase your vulnerability to fungal infections. During menstruation, or if you suffer from thyroid problems, it is important to be vigilant in checking for signs of oral thrush.

Stress: High levels of stress and chronic anxiety are tied to the occurrence of oral thrush. When you have the constant presence of stress hormones in your body, it can increase inflammation and compromise your immune system, which is why flare-ups of oral thrush happen in times of extreme stress or lack of rest.

Diabetes: For some diabetic patients who struggle to maintain proper sugar levels, their saliva may have an excessive amount of sugar, providing the fungus with additional resources to grow and spread. Diabetic patients should be particularly careful when their immune system is compromised.

HIV: Autoimmune diseases, such as HIV, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis all work to suppress the body’s immune system and prevent it from properly defending itself. If you have one of these conditions, you are far more susceptible to bacterial imbalance in the mouth, and subsequently, to oral thrush. 

Cancer: Many cancer patients experience oral thrush, largely believed to be due to a beleaguered immune system that simply can’t fight off any other pathogens or infections. The anti-cancer medication or radiation therapy can also compromise the body’s ability to fight with outside infections.

Treatments for Oral Thrush

It is possible to treat oral thrush in a number of ways through formal medication and procedures, including the use of anti-fungal mouthwashes, tablets, lozenges or liquid drops. Some of the most common varieties of these medications are nystatin, clotrimazole and miconazole. There are many different medications that use these active ingredients, depending on the strength and intended recipient of the medication.

If you represent any of the risk factors for this disease, such as smoking or poor diabetic control, changing your lifestyle may also help to eliminate this infection, particularly if it becomes a chronic problem. In many older people, ill-fitting dentures can make for a perfect breeding ground for this fungal infection, so be sure to check with your dentist if you have recurring bouts of oral thrush.

Home Remedies for Oral Thrush

Many people choose to avoid formal medication whenever possible, and fortunately, there are a number of home remedies for oral thrush, such as yogurt, coconut oil, baking soda, tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar and garlic.

Yogurt

 When your mouth’s bacterial balance is compromised, you need to replace those beneficial bacteria to get the fungal infection back in check. Eating yogurt is an excellent way of delivering those probiotics directly where they are needed, and this will also protect the esophagus if the infection begins to spread.

Tea Tree Oil

 Known as one of the most powerful antifungal substances ever discovered, only a few drops of diluted tea tree oil are required to have a notable impact on the appearance of your symptoms. Simply apply a few drops with a cotton ball to the inflamed patches of white in your mouth. Repeat this 1-2 times per day until the symptoms disappear.

Apple Cider Vinegar

 When it comes to mouth cleansers, few things are better than swishing out your mouth with apple cider vinegar. This potent antiseptic and antifungal liquid is used for countless natural health remedies, and is particularly effective for treating oral thrush when repeated 2-3 times per day.

Garlic

This common ingredient also happens to have a high concentration of antioxidants and antifungal compounds, which makes it ideal for eliminating the infection. If you drink a small amount of garlic juice and gargle with it, you can rapidly kill or neutralize the infection before it spreads.

Coconut Oil

As with countless other medical conditions, coconut oil’s unique properties can be extremely useful. The antifungal and antioxidant nature of coconut oil helps to dispel the overgrowth of Candida fungus, while also stimulating regrowth and repair of healthy cells. Mixing a bit of coconut oil with warm water and swishing around in your mouth for 30 seconds is a fast and easy remedy for this infection.

Oral Thrush in Babies

This infection often presents in infants for a number of reasons. First and foremost, due to their passage through the vagina, which contains Candida fungi, they are exposed to this pathogen at a very early stage in their development. The immune system hasn’t fully formed, which means that it may not be able to stop an overgrowth of this fungus in the mouth.

Furthermore, if your baby has had any other illness, antibiotics may have been used, which could also have compromised the immune balance and allowed the fungal infection to take hold. In babies, this fungal infection manifests in a similar way as in adults – small white patches on the tongue and other parts of the mouth, as well as discomfort, which your infant will certainly let you know about.

Infants with this infection are often unwilling to feed, or detach from the nipple. Your child can also pass the infection back to their mother while breastfeeding, resulting in dry, cracked or painful nipples. This infection typically isn’t dangerous for your baby, but you should seek medical attention for an antifungal cream or drops, including miconazole and nystatin.

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