Background: Over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal products for vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC) have gained tremendous popularity, as evidenced by staggering increases in sales since the products were switched from prescription-only to OTC status. The rapid escalation in the sale of these products may imply that women are using them inappropriately. The purposes of this study were to determine (1) whether women could correctly diagnose VVC and common genitourinary tract problems after reading classic case scenarios, (2) whether women could correctly select the appropriate treatment for these cases, and (3) whether a previous diagnosis of VVC by a clinician had any effect on a woman's ability to self-diagnose and self-treat VVC.
Methods: Women 16 years of age and older were recruited from medical and community sites to complete a 63-question survey instrument designed to assess their knowledge of the symptoms and signs of pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, acute cystitis, vaginal trichomoniasis, and vulvovaginal candidiasis after reading classic case scenarios.
Results: A total of 601 women completed the questionnaire, 552 subjects and 49 medically trained women who served as a criterion standard for comparison. Of the 552 subjects, 365 reported a prior diagnosis of VCC and 154 reported no such prior diagnosis. The medically trained cohort was more accurate in diagnosing VVC (83.7% correct) than were subjects who had received a prior diagnosis of VVC (34.5% correct), and more accurate than subjects without a previous diagnosis of VVC (11.0% correct, P < .001). A greater percentage of subjects in whom VVC had been previously diagnosed, as compared with the medically trained cohort, would use OTC agents inappropriately for pelvic inflammatory disease (6.7% vs 4.3%, respectively; P = NS), bacterial vaginosis (14.6% vs 6.4%, respectively; P = .028), urinary tract infection (2.0% vs 0%, respectively; P < .001), and vaginal trichomoniasis (11.8% vs 6.6%, respectively; P = .048).
Conclusions: A minority of women were able to correctly diagnose VVC from a classic case scenario. A prior clinical diagnosis of VVC had only a moderate positive effect on subjects' ability to correctly diagnose a classic case. Based on our findings, women likely use OTC antifungals inappropriately to treat gynecologic conditions that are similar but potentially more severe. Numerous adverse consequences may result from misdiagnosis. Improved patient education by health care providers and the manufacturers of OTC antifungal drugs might improve this diagnostic problem.