It should come as no surprise that STD testing is important. In fact, while there are many things you can do to stay healthy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that STD tests are one of the most important measures you can take when it comes to your health. That’s why the group recommends that all people ages 13 to 64 should be tested at least once in their life for HIV and that all sexually active women 25 and younger (as well as those older than 25 with risk factors such as multiple partners) be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia (a simple vaginal sample or urine test) every year.
But for women, there are more specific suggestions regarding testing, too — especially when it comes to having a baby on the way. The CDC suggests all ladies be tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B starting early in pregnancy and that at-risk pregnant women be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea, too. The CDC also recommends screening for pregnant women in their first trimester if they are under 25, as well as those over 25 if they are at an increased risk.
“Being aware of and treating STDs is important at every stage in life, for personal health, future fertility, partners’ health, and the health of a fetus or newborn,” Paula Brady, M.D., a fertility specialist at Columbia University Fertility Center, tells SheKnows.
The good news: Getting tested is easy, says Brady. “Any family planning clinic or office can do it, including Planned Parenthood; internal medicine and family medicine physicians, and gynecologists also do these tests all the time.” Plus, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (and since they can be prevented and treated), many insurance plans cover STD testing, so you can probably get checked for free or at a reduced price if you have health insurance.
Here, three other reasons mamas-to-be should make a screening a priority.
You might not even know you have an STD
Think you’d be aware of the fact that you had an STD? You might not be. While all STDs are commonly thought of as “silent” infections, gonorrhea and chlamydia (which, BTW, is the most commonly reported STD in this country with more than 1.7 million cases reported to the CDC in just 2017), in particular, tend to come without symptoms in women. That means that many women who are infected may have no idea — or might confuse more mild symptoms (like unusual discharge) with something else like a yeast infection, making screening even more crucial.
If you do have an STD, your baby could be at risk
At one of your first prenatal appointments, you’ll likely be screened for STDs and if you’re not, it’s important to ask. (The CDC’s 2015 STD Treatment Guidelines recommend screening pregnant women for STDs).
Why? STDs can put your baby’s health at risk. For example, gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause lifelong damage to your fallopian tubes where the egg travels from the ovaries to the uterus, negatively impacting future fertility if you don’t treat the infections, says Brady. “These infections can cause inflammation in the fallopian tubes called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) and each episode of PID doubles the rate of infertility.” Because chlamydia and gonorrhea can result in inflammation and damage to the tubes, they can also up your risk of ectopic pregnancy, when a fertilized egg exists outside of the uterus, and preterm birth, says Brady.
When left untreated, syphilis can also cause significant birth defects to a fetus in pregnancy, Brady notes. And trichomoniasis can increase risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight.
“Another important potential STD is Zika,” adds Brady. “It is usually transmitted by mosquito bite in certain parts of the world but can be sexually transmitted as well.” And the infection, which causes a flu-like illness, can have serious ramifications in pregnancy, causing birth defects and developmental delays. (Find about more about zika and pregnancy here.)
You can pass STDs to your baby
Sexually transmitted diseases don’t just cause complications in a pregnancy — they can even be passed along to your baby at the time of a vaginal delivery, too, causing illness, says Brady.
What’s more? “Congenital syphilis has sharply increased in recent years,” she says, noting that both pregnant women and women potentially planning pregnancy should be tested for gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis and HIV. “These infections can be passed to the baby (in utero, at delivery, or by breastfeeding, depending on the infection), causing pregnancy loss or significant illness for both mother and baby.”
Beyond getting screened, there are also other measures you can take. Fortunately, when caught, STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and trichomoniasis can all be treated with antibiotics that are safe to take during pregnancy. And if you have HIV, antiviral medicines can lower the risk of giving HIV to your baby to less than 1 percent, too.
Have any genital lesions that you think might be herpes? “It is important to see a doctor to get a diagnosis,” says Brady. “In pregnancy, women with genital herpes are prescribed antivirals near the end of pregnancy to suppress outbreaks.”
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