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Sexually transmitted infections: Here’s how STIs and STDs cause infertility, tips to prevent it

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Sexually transmitted diseases or STDs are diseases transmitted from person to person through sexual contact and are particularly common in adults 25 years old and younger whereas sexually transmitted infections or STIs are caused by bacteria or a virus that spreads in the body, leading to STDs. Problems with the fallopian tubes cause about 30% of female infertility and STDs are a common cause of what is known as tubal factor infertility.

Eight pathogens are linked to the greatest incidence of STIs. Of these, 4 are currently curable: syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. The other 4 are incurable viral infections: hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus (HSV), HIV and human papillomavirus (HPV).

How STIs and STDs cause infertility?

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Ritu Hinduja, Fertility Consultant at Nova IVF Fertility in Mumbai, explained, “Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection commonly caused by STDs, can lead to tubal factor infertility as well as damage the ovaries, which can also contribute to infertility. Some STDs, such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia, can affect fertility in men and women. These often go unnoticed due to a lack of symptoms, resulting in more damage.”

She added, “Sexually transmitted diseases can directly or indirectly cause infertility in women and in men. When STDs are left untreated, infections can develop that cause infertility by moving up the reproductive system and spreading to the woman’s uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes causing damage, scarring, or inflammation. The two major causes of STD-related infertility are pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and damage to the fallopian tubes.”

PID and tubal factor infertility:

According to Dr Ritu Hinduja, PID is most often caused by the STDs gonorrhea or chlamydia when bacteria enter the reproductive system. She elaborated, “PID causes scarring of the cervix, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. If left untreated, PID can cause irreversible damage resulting in infertility. Problems with the fallopian tubes are a leading cause of female infertility and such problems can be caused by STDs.”

Asserting that PID is one cause of what is called tubal factor infertility, she highlighted, “It’s reported that 25%–35% of female infertility is due to tubal factors. If the fallopian tubes are damaged or blocked, it can result in infertility in two ways: it can prevent sperm from reaching the egg in the fallopian tube for fertilization and it can prevent a fertilized egg from entering the uterus to implant for pregnancy.”

STDs that indirectly cause infertility:

Dr Ritu Hinduja cautioned, “Herpes simplex virus (HSV), human papillomavirus (HPV) and syphilis can indirectly affect fertility. HSV can cause the couple to abstain from sexual intercourse, which limits the chances of becoming pregnant. HPV can cause genital warts that may take months or years to treat and some strains of HPV can also lead to cervical cancer or precancerous cells, the treatment of which can affect fertility. Syphilis if left untreated can affect infertility in women and men.”

Treatment is important:

Given that untreated STDs are a huge contributing factor when it comes to infertility, Dr Ritu Hinduja shared, “If STDs are diagnosed and treated sufficiently, they are less likely to have a negative impact on fertility. Screening for STDs is accessible and low cost. The earlier STDs are diagnosed, the better the chances of them not affecting infertility.”

Tips to prevent STDs:

Dr Ritu Hinduja advised, “Using condoms in the correct way can lessen the chances of an STD. Avoid sexual intercourse with anyone showing symptoms such as a rash, genital sores or discharge. Having fewer partners and getting tested with a partner can lower the chances of contracting an STD. Getting vaccinated can prevent catching some of the most common STDs. Communicate with any sexual partners about staying safe from STDs before having sex. Get tested to confirm the possibility of having an STD. Follow up with treatment, as many STDs are curable and all are treatable.”

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