Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) usually haunt the nether regions, whether germs have set up shop in the urethra, clustered around the cervix, or burrowed inside a cell. There, they might cause symptoms, like a burning sensation when urinating, unusual discharge, or warts or sores in the genital area.
Sometimes, however, STDs can infect other parts of your body, usually places that boast environments that are warm and moist, just like your genitals. For example, the virus that causes genital warts can also infect the throat to cause growths inside the airway. Oral sex can transfer the bacteria that cause gonorrhea from a urethra to a throat. And herpes can spring up around the mouth or in the genital region, and can be transferred between the two locations.
Instead of wearing goggles during sex, get tested for STDs at Planned Parenthood!
But did you know that certain sexually transmitted organisms can find their way into human eyes? If you didn’t, you do now, so read on to learn about some of the types of STDs that can affect your eyes.
Chlamydia and Gonorrhea
The most common bacterial STD in the country is chlamydia, which strikes nearly 3 million American groins annually. In second place is gonorrhea, which infects around 800,000 Americans every year. Bacteria that infect the genital region have an affinity for its warm, moist atmosphere. And while eyes might not be their first choice, the ocular environment can be pretty inviting as well. When chlamydia or gonorrhea infect the eye, the resulting conditions are called chlamydial conjunctivitis and gonococcal conjunctivitis, respectively.
I had a microbiology professor a few years back, and as a Neisseria gonorrhoeae researcher, he always had stories to tell about gonorrhea, the disease caused by the bacteria he studied. One was a tale of a colleague who touched a sample of the bacteria, and then absentmindedly rubbed her eye. How embarrassing for her when she developed a gonorrhea infection in her eye!
In actuality, babies are most at risk for conjunctivitis caused by STDs. When an infant is born to a mother with untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea, the bacteria hanging out in the birth canal might get transferred to the newborn’s eyes, which can cause redness, swollen eyelids, and discharge. Additionally, before gonorrhea could be cured with antibiotics, it was one of the leading causes of blindness in newborns.
Lab blunders and live births aside, chlamydia and gonorrhea are usually transmitted sexually, so even if you haven’t been expelled through a birth canal lately, they could still get into your peepers if sexual fluids make contact with an eyeball. Eye infections with chlamydia and gonorrhea are rare in adults, and it’s thought that they usually originate from “autoinoculation” — that is, someone touches an infected part of their genitals or anus and then touches their eye, spreading the bacteria.
In adults, chlamydial conjunctivitis can be accompanied by redness, discharge, and inflammation; these symptoms can show up two weeks after infection. Gonococcal conjunctivitis can be serious, and, in adults, can cause redness, soreness, swollen eyelids, discharge, infection or scarring of the corneas, and blindness. These symptoms can show up within a few days to a few weeks after infection. Each type of infection is cured by different kinds of antibiotics.
The critters that are also known as crabs are adapted to the thick hair that grows in the genital region — their little “claws” are perfectly suited to grasp hairs of that exact thickness. But if they somehow find themselves in the vicinity of someone’s face, they are perfectly able to grab onto that person’s eyelashes and hitch a free ride outta Grointown. If pubic lice infest your eyelashes, you could experience itching or burning, and might be able to see egg cases attached to your eyelashes.
A genital pubic-lice infestation is treated with a topical medication, of which there are prescription and non-prescription versions. If there are lice swinging from eyelash to eyelash like tiny little Tarzans, however, you’ll have to remove them with a comb or tweezers — or with assistance from a health care provider — as the lice medication is not safe to use on or around your eyes. Other treatments include cutting the eyelashes off, various ointments that kill the lice but not their eggs, and a scrub that can be applied twice a day — none of which is ideal.
Syphilis, too, can move from a placenta to a fetus to cause an infection in the womb, and can have effects on the eyes as well as many other regions of the body; it can also be fatal. In adults, syphilis can be transmitted sexually into the eye, causing redness and visual problems. An ocular infection with syphilis can lead to scarring and, ultimately, blindness, so prompt treatment is important. Additionally, contact with genital secretions that are infected with the bacteria that cause syphilis can sometimes lead to a chancre (sore) on or around the eyelid.
So, does all this mean that you need to don a pair of goggles before having sex? If that’s your thing, go for it, but you can also minimize transmission risk of fluid-borne infections by putting a condom on any penises involved in your activities from start to finish. Dental dams placed over labia and vaginal openings could also reduce risk.
Since barriers don’t cover the entire genital area, they unfortunately aren’t great for preventing the transmission of pubic lice. You could also get pubic lice from infested bedding, and they don’t make condoms that fit over entire mattresses. The only way to reduce risk is to limit your number of sexual partners.
You and your partner can come down to a Planned Parenthood health center to be screened for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Since these infections can so often be asymptomatic, it’s completely possible to have them without knowing it — which is why getting yourself tested is so important!
Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!