Sunday, June 21, 2009

Exactly Why STDs Are Bad

One of the hardest parts of my job is calling a patient to tell her that she has a sexually transmitted infection (STD/STI). Every woman receives this news differently--shock, anger, horror, depression, resignation--but it always ruins her day and often sends her to the internet to find out what it means.

But STDs are not all alike (even if it always sucks to get one). This news may mean you need to take a single dose of antibiotics to cure it...or it may mean that your life is forever changed (HIV). In general, there's two kinds of STDs. Bacterial and parasitic infections include gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomonas, and syphilis; these can be treated, and often cured, with medication. Viral infections infections are most often the big three: HIV, HPV and herpes. These infections cannot be cured, though their symptoms may be controlled.

Most of us are aware of the dangers around the viral infections (the gifts that keep on giving). But sometimes my patients are unaware of what exactly the consequences are of contracting a bacterial or parasitic STD. "You can just treat it, right? So what's the big deal?"

Short-term misery.
  • The infections themselves - while they may be silent, they can cause vaginal discharge, vulvar bumps, burning, and pain.
  • Abscesses - when certain STIs make their way up to your tubes and ovaries, they can create a pocket of pus the size of a golf ball or larger, often leading to....
  • Hospitalization, for both intravenous antibiotics and pain control. Sometimes time alone is enough to resolve an abscess, but sometimes you end up needing....
  • Drainage or surgery. It can be a needle passed through the wall of your belly to drain the pus, or actual surgery to remove the mess--either way it's a nightmare.
Long-term consequences.
  • The risk of surgical complications if surgery is needed--bleeding, further infection, damage to your bladder or bowels.
  • Infertility, if your fallopian tubes are scarred. Even surgery is often not alone to repair such damaged tubes, and you're then facing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) if you want to get pregnant in the future.
  • The "talk" with every future partner about your sexual history. First sexual encounters can be awkward enough, without having to talk about your herpes or HPV infection.
  • Medical bills. Because these infections need to get treated, whether or not you've got insurance.
Finally, if you contract an infection from a partner and eventually sleep with someone else without treatment, you'll be spreading the STD wealth without knowing it. So if you're not in a monogamous relationship--or aren't sure if you are or not--please think twice about not wearing condoms. Use them for your health, both for now and for later.

Have any of you, or had someone close to you, had to deal with the consequences of an STD?

Photo credit: miszpinay

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