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A new study suggests that repeated yeast infections can lead to vulvodynia, a chronic genital pain condition affecting up to 12 per cent of women.

"This is the first experimental evidence causally linking some sort of inflammation to this type of pain," said the lead researcher Melissa Farmer, who conducted the study while working on her PhD at McGill University in Montreal.

Women describe a burning or cutting sensation in response to the slightest touch. But, in most cases, the vulva tissue appears normal and doctors can't account for the debilitating pain.

For her study, Dr. Farmer, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago, was able to produce a "vulvodynia-like" state in female mice by exposing them to a series of yeast infections. The first two infections had no lasting effect. But after the third time, some of the mice remained hypersensitive even when the infection was gone, according to the findings published in journal Science Translational Medicine.

Furthermore, the mice beset by genital pain had far more sensory nerve fibres in the vulva region than the other mice. These findings suggest the infection spurred the growth of the additional nerve fibres, setting the stage for the chronic condition.

Dr. Farmer believes that a similar process of repeated infections may trigger vulvodynia in some women. And, just like in the mice, the infection may disappear, but the sensitivity remains. "Anything that rubs directly or indirectly on the area ends up being painful," she noted. The condition has "a big impact" on woman's a sex life, but it also impedes many other daily activities. "Some of these women can't wear jeans or sit down for long periods of time without discomfort."

Although the study focused on yeast infections, Dr. Farmer believes other forms of localized inflammation, such as bacterial infections, could also trigger a state of chronic pain.

She speculated that early and aggressive treatment of these inflammatory episodes could significantly reduce the chances of a woman developing vulvodynia.

She noted that a yeast infection can be effectively treated with the medication fluconazole. But some women wait too long before seeking medical help or don't take the medication long enough to completely eradicate the infection so it quickly returns.