When you want to have a baby and can’t, trying to figure out the reason why can be incredibly painful. So many factors — genetics, injury, hormones, your partner’s plumbing — are out of your control. But there is one major contributor to infertility you can do a lot about: sexually transmitted diseases.
Consider this: Cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea are the highest they’ve ever been — more cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year than any illness, ever — and the majority of women infected with them will show no symptoms. Combine that with the fact that nearly half of all men have never been tested for sexually transmitted diseases and you have a recipe for disaster, particularly when it comes to your fertility.
STDs are a major cause of infertility, according to the CDC report. This is even more devastating because many women don’t even realize they’re infected until they want to have a baby and can’t. To protect yourself, the CDC recommends safe sex (always, every time, without exception) and regular screening for all women of childbearing age. In the meantime, it’s important to get educated about what’s out there and how it can affect your lady parts.
Here’s a quick rundown of STDs that can hurt your fertility:
Despite the cutesy nickname, there’s nothing at all cute or benign about “the clap.” Chlamydia is one of the top two causes (along with gonorrhea) of pelvic inflammatory disease, an illness that doubles your risk of infertility. Along with PID, chlamydia can cause “silent” infections in the upper genital tract, which can cause permanent damage to your fallopian tubes, uterus and other organs critical to baby-making, leading to infertility.
Symptoms of chlamydia can include pelvic pain, unusual spotting and discharge, but keep in mind that the majority of people show no signs of illness at all. It can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
Like chlamydia, gonorrhea has reached epidemic proportions worldwide and is a leading cause of PID and, therefore, infertility. According to the CDC, it can also cause scarring that blocks your fallopian tubes and increase your risk of having an ectopic pregnancy (which can be life-threatening for the mother and is always deadly for the baby) and contracting HIV. If you do get pregnant, you can pass the illness on to your baby.
Gonorrhea symptoms can include vaginal discharge, pain when urinating and spotting; however, the vast majority of women do not show symptoms. The CDC adds the infection can occur in your vagina, anus and/or throat. In the past, gonorrhea was treated with antibiotics, but now the CDC warns “the bacteria has developed resistance to nearly every drug used for treatment.” Drug-resistant gonorrhea is being called a major health crisis.
Herpes is one of the most common viruses in the world, causing everything from cold sores to warts. Although a cold sore won’t affect your fertility, genital herpes definitely can. Herpes is known to cause early miscarriages as well as preterm labor. It can also be passed to your baby during childbirth, potentially causing a life-threatening illness called neonatal herpes.
Again, the CDC reports that most people with genital herpes show no symptoms. In people who do show symptoms, the telltale painful sores and blisters often show up only cyclically and are easily mistaken for other skin conditions. There is no cure for herpes, but the symptoms can be managed with medication.
Think this historical STD has gone out of fashion? Despite being nearly eradicated by the advent of antibiotics, syphilis has started to make a comeback, with cases doubling in the past five years. Even scarier: Young women are the fastest-growing group, with rates increasing 23 percent. The disease is highly contagious and can have many serious long-term health complications, including infertility. It’s known to cause late miscarriages and stillbirths and can also be passed on to a baby during childbirth.
This disease is nicknamed “the great imitator,” and for good reason: Its symptoms, particularly those in the earliest stage, are quite varied and mimic many other illnesses. This illness will eventually infect nearly every part of the body, including your eyes and brain, and can cause death if not treated. Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics, but they work best when caught in the earliest stages.
5. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS, perhaps the scariest disease of our modern age. Thanks to medical advances, it’s not the death sentence it once was, but it still affects the person’s entire life, including her fertility. The virus can lower production of progesterone and estrogen and stop your periods, making it far more difficult to get pregnant. In addition, the medications used to manage the disease can have serious side effects on a pregnancy and the baby. It’s also possible (though not assured) to pass the illness on to a baby.
In the earliest stages, there are often no symptoms of HIV. When it does start to manifest, it is often mistaken for a bad cold or flu before progressing to a variety of illnesses. It is impossible to tell if you have HIV from symptoms alone, the CDC cautions, which is why it is so important to get tested regularly. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, though the symptoms can be managed with medications.