It’s Condom Week! If you’re researching egg freezing, chances are that you’re not ready to have a baby right now. Condoms might seem old-school, but they’re still one of the easiest and cheapest forms of effective (85%+) birth control.
And if you’re a woman who wants to start a family one day (or you’re having sex with one), there’s another very important reason to use protection and keep up with your STI screenings: preventing female infertility.
STIs/STDs and fertility
Untreated chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are bacterial infections spread through sexual contact. Both infections can affect both men and women, and are some of the most common STIs seen by doctors: an estimated 2.86 million cases of chlamydia and 820,000 cases of gonorrhea occur annually in the United States. When a woman is infected with one of these STIs and it goes untreated, microorganisms can travel upward from her cervix or vagina to her other reproductive organs, causing them to be infected, as well. This is known as pelvic inflammatory disease.
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Doctors estimate that up to 40% of women who contract chlamydia or gonorrhea and don’t properly treat the infection will wind up with pelvic inflammatory disease; up to half of PID cases are estimated by the CDC to be caused by chlamydia or gonorrhea infection. More often than not, an infected woman has no symptoms—but unfortunately, even asymptomatic infection can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID.
Pelvic inflammatory disease can cause infertility.
PID can cause infertility by creating scar tissue on the fallopian tubes that blocks the pathway of the egg released from the ovary, preventing natural pregnancy. Even one episode can cause irreversible damage of the reproductive organs, leaving 12% of women diagnosed with PID infertile. And because one occurrence increases the likelihood of another, women with a history of PID must be extra vigilant about STI screenings and gynecological check ups. Multiple episodes significantly increase the risk of infertility, with 3 episodes bringing the rate of infertility to around 50%.
PID can be treated with antibiotics, but treatment cannot reverse scarring of the reproductive organs once it’s already occurred—and it’s the scarring that can cause infertility. Women with infertility caused by PID likely won’t be able to get pregnant without in vitro fertilization treatment.
Preventing pelvic inflammatory disease
There are a few important ways to prevent pelvic inflammatory disease: safer sex, regular STI testing, and quick, thorough treatment.
Barrier contraceptives, like condoms
Bacterial infections chlamydia and gonorrhea are carried by body fluids including semen and vaginal fluids. Barrier contraceptives, like male and female condoms, protect you and your partner from contact with each other’s body fluids. It’s important to remember that hormonal birth control doesn’t protect against any form of sexually transmitted infection, so even if you’re on birth control, you should consider using condoms or another barrier method.
Regular STI testing
Like we mentioned above, gonorrhea and chlamydia (amongst other STIs) are often asymptomatic, which is why regular STI testing is so important—especially if you or a partner have had unprotected sex. STI testing isn’t always automatically included in your regular OB/GYN check-up, so don’t be afraid to ask your doctor about it. STI testing is typically quick and painless, and is likely to be covered by your insurance plan or offered at a low cost by a local health center or Planned Parenthood.
Quick, thorough STI treatment
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are both easily treatable. They require a simple course of antibiotics. If you’re prescribed several days of antibiotics, be sure to take all of the medication to ensure the infection is cleared. And if you’re being treated for a bacterial infection like gonorrhea or chlamydia, it’s really important that your partner(s) get tested and treated, too—for their own health and to prevent you from getting reinfected. Quick treatment is key to prevent these infections from becoming pelvic inflammatory disease and causing infertility.