STDs and Infertility: Part 1
It is widely-known that unprotected sex can lead to serious diseases that can cause illness…even death. Yet a lesser known fact is that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also called sexually transmitted infections (STIs), can also cause infertility problems that prevent pregnancy.
Each year, more women find out that they are unable to get pregnant because of an STD. Many women contract sexually transmitted infections years before they even think of wanting children. Some women don’t know they have an STD until they struggle to get pregnant and have to see their doctor for answers.
STD infertility statistics
According to recent reports, about 111 million new cases of curable STDs and half of all new HIV infections occur among young people. Sexually transmitted diseases affect human fertility primarily through infections of the female upper genital tract and, less common, through obstructions of the male vas deferens.
Sometimes STDs go unnoticed because there may be no symptoms. Yet these infections, especially when untreated, can lead to irreversible scarring that impairs the ability to get pregnant and have children.
Who is affected?
Sexually transmitted diseases can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, or sex. Women (and men), ages 19 to 26, are most susceptible for STDs because they are the most sexually active as a group.
Teens are also at high risk. Too often teens who have unprotected sex think that pregnancy is the “worst” outcome they might have to face. Even more frightening, teens and many young adults don’t know what sexual behaviors are considered “risky”. Thus, they believe that because they didn’t have intercourse, they are safe.
Preventing fertility problems
The knowledge gap about the links between STDs and fertility puts us all at risk. Misinformation about what constitutes appropriate prevention is rampant.
In one global survey about basic fertility facts, approximately half of the 17,500 respondents agreed that "general health is a good indicator of fertility." In reality, it is not. Getting a clean bill of health from a general physical exam is not a reliable indicator of successful chances of pregnancy, even though a healthy lifestyle does help preserve fertility.
Did you know that a routine gynecological check-up does not include testing for the top five STDs most likely to affect fertility? These STDs include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Ironically, many young people don’t seek testing and treatment for a possible STD because even the idea of having a sexual disease feels shameful. These young adults may worry that everyone will find out and their reputation will be ruined, not to mention the fear of how their parents will react.
We have to understand this psychology and find appropriate ways to help people overcome these barriers to reproductive health. Young people must be encouraged to seek medical treatment and advice as soon as they suspect they have a sexually transmitted disease or infection.
Repeated testing is also critical, since symptoms can lay dormant for long periods—even years.
A major step in preventing infertility is to become educated. While there’s no such thing as safe sex, having “safer sex” may help prevent STDs, STIs, and infertility. And the only absolute way to protect yourself from an STD is through abstinence.
Learning about the undeniable link between STDs and infertility is a potent motivator to practice safer sex. While young people may not grasp the concept of their own mortality, most teens can understand that what they do today can affect their future dream of someday becoming mothers and fathers.
How can we prevent infertility?
Sex is not just vaginal intercourse. Sex also includes acts that can cause potential health risks from sexual and sexualized activity, including some types of foreplay. We have to ensure that the real answer to the question: “How could I get an STD? We didn’t even have sex?”—is fully understood.
In a society where “Friends with Benefits” is a commonplace description of sexual relationships without commitment, many people erroneously think that anal penetration, oral sex, or mutual masturbation doesn’t “count” as sex. But all of these are forms of sex, and may carry health risks.
Rather than spread fear and anxiety, alert sexually active young people to take proactive steps to protect themselves and their fertility. By preventing STDs and STIs, we can also help prevent some cases of infertility. The end result will be two-fold: a reduction in STDs/STIs and an increase in fertility, pregnancy, and more children down the road.
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