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April is Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Awareness Month
Few people realize how common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are among men and women of reproductive age, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 20 million new STDs occur each year. Some STDs can increase susceptibility to infection by other diseases, including HIV. They can also increase risk for pregnancy and birth complications.
One disconcerting fact that echoes a need for awareness is that some STDs can lead to infertility or cancer if left untreated. Bacteria found in bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea can spread to the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID causes inflammation and scar tissue to develop which can inhibit ovulation or lead to ectopic pregnancies. Each year in the United States, approximately 750,000 women are diagnosed with PID, and up to 15% of these women experience infertility.
The following are common STD descriptions and guidelines as issued by the CDC:
- Chlamydia: Chlamydia is caused by bacteria and can lead to PID if left untreated. It is the most common bacterial STD with approximately 2.86 million cases occurring annually. Most people who contract chlamydia do not exhibit symptoms, though discharge or pain during urination may occur. Pregnant women who contract chlamydia can experience preterm delivery of their infants, and the infection can cause illness in her child if spread during child birth. Rarely, chlamydia can cause infertility in men. Both men and women are at greater risk of contracting HIV if they are infected with chlamydia. Women can undergo annual chlamydia testing during their pap smear exam.
- Gonorrhea: Caused by bacteria, gonorrhea tends to grow in areas like the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes in women. It can grow in the urethra of men or women. It is estimated by the CDC that approximately 820,000 people in the United States are infected with gonorrhea annually. Less than half of these are reported to the CDC. Women tend not to exhibit external symptoms of gonorrhea and if they do, symptoms can be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection. Untreated gonorrhea can lead to PID.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is the most common STD with more than 40 different strains of the disease and nearly 79 million Americans infected. According to the CDC, almost all sexually active men and women will contract HPV at some point in their lives. It is concerning to women of reproductive age because some strains can cause cervical cancer. Symptoms are often not present until the HPV has reached an advanced stage. Women can receive an HPV screening during their annual pap smear.
- Trichomonaisis: “Trich” is a common STD caused by parasite infection. Despite the fact that nearly 3.7 million people are infected with the disease, only 30% of those develop any symptoms. Symptoms can include mild to severe inflammation, itching, burning after urination, and discharge. Trichomonaisis increases a person’s risk of contracting other STDs. It can result in premature birth and low birth weight in children whose mothers have become infected with trichomonaisis. However, it is the most curable of STDs, requiring a single dose of antibiotics.
- Herpes: Approximately 776,000 men and women in the United States are infected with herpes each year, a disease characterized by painful, contagious genital sores. Genital herpes can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, and can be passed to a child at birth. If herpes sores are present at the time of birth, a woman will undergo cesarean section delivery rather than vaginal birth to prevent transmission to her child.
- Syphilis: Syphilis is another STD caused by bacteria. Approximately 55,400 people in the United States are infected with syphilis annually. Pregnant women with syphilis may experience premature delivery, stillbirth, or low birth weight in their children. Syphilis can lead to death or long term health complications in adults or children if left untreated. Women can undergo syphilis screening their annual pap smear. Syphilis can be treated with an antibiotic.
It is important for women of reproductive age to talk to their doctor about STD screening and prevention to reduce the risk of fertility and general health risks.