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Oral thrush occurs when a yeast infection develops on the inside of your mouth and on your tongue. This condition is also known as oropharyngeal candidiasis.
Oral thrush is caused by the fungus Candida albicans. A small amount of this fungus normally lives in your mouth, but is kept in check by your immune system. An infection develops when the fungus overwhelms your body’s ability to control it.
Oral thrush occurs most often in infants and toddlers. White lesions (bumps) on the inner cheeks and tongue are characteristic of this condition.
Antifungal medications can effectively treat oral thrush, and the condition usually does not cause complications for healthy patients. However, oral thrush can be problematic for those with weakened immune systems.
Oral thrush occurs when your immune system can’t maintain its natural defense against the Candida albicans fungus.
Normally, your immune system uses “good” microorganisms to keep Candida albicans and other “bad” microorganisms under control. Taking antibiotics, which kill off the “good” bacteria that would naturally prevent infection, can allow the fungus to multiply.
Diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer attack your immune system. Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation, can damage or kill healthy cells. This also makes you more susceptible to infections such as oral thrush.
Diabetes also can contribute to oral thrush. If you have uncontrolled diabetes, you likely have a high level of sugar in your saliva. Candida albicans can use this extra sugar to fuel its growth in your mouth.
In newborns, oral thrush can be contracted at birth. Women who have vaginal yeast infections can pass the infections to their newborns during delivery because the same fungus that causes yeast infections causes oral thrush.
While babies and toddlers are the most likely to develop oral thrush, people of any age can contract it. You are more susceptible if your immune system is weakened by factors such as:
In the initial stages of oral thrush, you may not notice any symptoms. However, as time passes and the fungus grows, the following symptoms may develop:
In addition, infants may experience difficulty feeding, fussiness, and irritability.
Breastfeeding babies with oral thrush can pass the infection to their mothers. The mother and baby can get caught in a cycle in which they infect and re-infect one another. If you are a breastfeeding mother and your breasts become infected with the fungus, you may experience:
For patients with healthy immune systems, complications from oral thrush are rare. Patients whose immune systems are weakened by disease or chemotherapy are the most likely to experience complications. In these patients, the fungus may multiply, enter the bloodstream, and spread throughout the body. The infection can spread to various locations, including the brain, heart, joints, eyes, kidney, liver, or lungs.
Infants who develop oral thrush also may get a severe diaper rash.
In most cases, your physician can diagnose oral thrush by visually examining your mouth and tongue for the characteristic white lesions.
If the diagnosis is not definite, your physician will take a scraping from a mouth lesion for further examination.
If thrush has infected your esophagus, your physician likely will perform more procedures to ensure a correct diagnosis. These techniques may include:
Oral thrush in older children and adults can result from an underlying medical condition that may have weakened the immune system. In these cases, your physician will conduct a complete physical examination, along with lab tests, to identify any underlying conditions.
Treatment for oral thrush varies depending on your age and overall health. The purpose of treatment is to prevent the growth and spread of the fungus.
Treatment for oral thrush may consist of:
Your at-home regimen for treating oral thrush should include:
When a breastfeeding infant has oral thrush, both the mother and infant should be treated to prevent a cycle of reinfection. Treatment in these cases may include:
You may have to wait a couple of weeks to see results after you start treatment for oral thrush. It is common to have a recurrence once the initial infection has healed. A complete cure is more likely if you have a healthy immune system and are free of other diseases.
Because the lesions are painful, oral thrush in infants can cause feeding difficulties. However, the effects are seldom serious in otherwise healthy babies.
You can help prevent oral thrush by following these simple routines:
Written by: Anna Giorgi
Published on: Aug 15, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Feb 16, 2016: Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP
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