STD Awareness: Mycoplasma genitalium

Image of Mycoplasma genitalium adapted from American Society for Microbiology.

“I’m not small, I’m just streamlined!” Image of Mycoplasma genitalium adapted from American Society for Microbiology.

In November and December of last year, headlines touting a “new” STD made an ever-so-minor flurry across the Internet. CNN referred to it as “mycoplasma genitalium, or MG” — Mycoplasma genitalium is the name of the teardrop-shaped bacteria that can cause several diseases in the urinary or reproductive tracts, such as urethritis and pelvic inflammatory disease.

M. genitalium is the smallest living organism known to science, having “devolved” from more complex organisms — but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch! While these bacteria have surely been around for millennia, we only discovered them in the 1980s. Since then, we’ve known that M. genitalium fits the profile of a sexually transmitted pathogen — the only reason it made the news last year was that a team of British researchers published further evidence that this bug is indeed sexually transmitted and capable of causing disease.


Genital mycoplasmas can be cured — but a doctor needs to know what she’s looking for in order to prescribe the correct antibiotic!


An infection with M. genitalium could more generally be called a “genital mycoplasma.” The term “genital mycoplasmas” refers to a category of several different species of sexually transmitted bacteria, most notably Mycoplasma genitalium, but also less common species, such as Mycoplasma hominis, Ureaplasma urealyticum, and Ureaplasma parvum. M. genitalium is considered an “emerging pathogen,” because it is only over the past couple of decades that technology has allowed us to study these bacteria, along with other genital mycoplasmas.

Risk factors for infection include multiple sexual partners and not using condoms during sex. It is thought that most people with an M. genitalium infection don’t have immediate symptoms — 94 percent of infected men and 56 percent of infected women won’t notice anything amiss. That doesn’t mean it can’t do damage. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Bacterial Vaginosis a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Not to scale: Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is the most common vaginal infection among people 15 to 44 years of age. It’s caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis. A healthy vagina hosts thriving populations of Lactobacillus bacteria species, but when these “good” bacteria are crowded out by certain types of “bad” bacteria, the vaginal ecosystem can be shifted, causing BV.

There is a lot of confusion about BV. Is it a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? What are the symptoms? How can you avoid it?

All good questions. Let’s examine them one by one.

Is BV an STD?

The consensus seems to be that BV isn’t officially an STD, but even reliable sources have somewhat contradictory information. Planned Parenthood doesn’t list BV as an STD on their informational webpages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does include BV on their STD website, but also says that “BV is not considered an STD.”

On the other hand, the Office on Women’s Health says that “BV can … be caused by vaginal, oral, or anal sex” and that “you can get BV from male or female partners.” And there’s an entire chapter devoted to BV in the premier medical textbook on STDs, and its authors say that, while sexually inexperienced females can get BV, “the weight of evidence supports sexual transmission” of G. vaginalis, the bacteria species most famously implicated in BV infections.

The same webpage on which the CDC declared BV not to be an STD also says that it can be transferred between female sexual partners. Indeed, women who have sex with women have higher rates of BV. Since vaginal fluid could spread BV, partners can change condoms when a sex toy is passed from one to another, and use barriers like dental dams when engaging in cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus).

What about heterosexual transmission? Continue reading

Is Douching Safe?

This vintage douche ad claims that its product is “safe to delicate tissues” and “non-poisonous.”

Douching is the practice of squirting a liquid, called a douche, into the vagina. Many people believe it helps keep the vagina clean and odor-free, and some are under the impression that it helps prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. An estimated 25 percent of American women 15 to 44 years old douche regularly. But just because douching is widespread doesn’t mean it’s safe; indeed, there are two possible mechanisms by which douching might be harmful.

First, douching might alter the pH of the vagina, changing its ecosystem. You might not think of a vagina as an “ecosystem,” but the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that live there sure do — and altering their habitat can harm the beneficial microbes that live there, opening the door for disease-causing microbes to take over the territory. Frequent douching can result in the vagina’s normal microbial population having difficulty reestablishing its population.


Douching increases risk for infections and fertility problems, and has no proven medical benefits.


Second, a douche’s upward flow might give pathogens a “free ride” into the depths of the reproductive tract, granting them access to areas that might have been difficult for them to reach otherwise. In this manner, an infection might spread from the lower reproductive tract to the upper reproductive tract. Douching might be an even bigger risk for female adolescents, whose reproductive anatomy is not fully formed, leaving them more vulnerable to pathogens.

While douching is not guaranteed to harm you, there is no evidence that it is beneficial in any way. Establishing causation between douching and the problems that are associated with it is trickier — does douching cause these problems, or do people who douche also tend to engage in other behaviors that increase risk? So far, the best evidence indicates that douching is correlated with a number of diseases and other problems, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, fertility and pregnancy complications, and more. Continue reading

STD Awareness: HIV Testing

HIV testIt’s often been said that young people view HIV as a chronic disease rather than the “life sentence” it was before there were effective treatments. The fact that an HIV infection can be managed with antiretroviral drugs is a boon from modern medicine, and there are hopes for better treatments on the horizon.

But HIV is only a manageable infection if you, well, manage it, and most Americans with HIV aren’t being treated with the medications we have in our arsenal. Only 3 out of 10 Americans who are infected with HIV are controlling the virus with medication — but when you zoom in on that population and look specifically at young people, the numbers are even more dismal, with only 13 percent of youth, ages 18 to 24, receiving treatment.


Knowing your HIV status is easier than it’s ever been.


Much of this problem is due to a lack of access — without adequate health coverage, these medications can be out of reach for many. But that’s not the whole story — it’s estimated that nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds with HIV don’t know it. If they haven’t been diagnosed, they can’t know to seek treatment; if they don’t seek treatment, they can’t manage their infection; if they can’t manage their infection, their risk of health problems and early death increases — as do the chances of transmitting the virus to someone else.

So, if a 20-year-old tests positive for HIV and begins antiretroviral treatment right away, he or she can expect to live another five decades — to age 71, not bad compared to the average life expectancy of 79. But if that 20-year-old does not take antiretorvirals, he or she can only expect to live another dozen years — to age 32.

That’s why it’s so important to get tested and know your status. Continue reading

PCOS: Erasing the Stigma

two womenUntil I encountered health-related issues of my very own, I had never heard of PCOS. There are no PSAs, no health class curricula, and it is not uncommon for many physicians to be unfamiliar with the seemingly unrelated symptoms that can be a detriment to the life of a woman who is affected.

Irregular menstrual cycles, weight gain, sluggishness, thinning hair, depression, acne, infertility, and sometimes (but not always) cysts on the ovaries are what a woman with PCOS may have to battle on a daily basis. Not only must a woman endure the physical effects of this disorder, but also the psychological effects that come with these changes. To be clear, that is by no means a comprehensive list of symptoms.

This is polycystic ovarian syndrome, and it affects more than 5 million women in the United States alone. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Genital Herpes

Herpes viruses inside a cell. Image: CDC

In the most recent Planned Parenthood annual report, a Tucson mother describes her daughter’s mysterious ailment, which stumped doctors at the hospital. Her symptoms included an itchy, tender genital area with painful lesions — but the physicians who “pored over her poor vulva” decided it was nothing to worry about and sent her home. A few days later, though, she called her mother in the middle of the night, sobbing, her condition now worse. “There were lesions, pustules, and the area was deep red,” her mother wrote. So this time, she called the experts: Planned Parenthood.


If you have symptoms, get checked out! An accurate diagnosis is more likely when symptoms are present.


The condition wasn’t nothing — it was genital herpes, and the mother praised Planned Parenthood for “spot[ting] something other pros missed.” Indeed, sexual and reproductive health is what we do — day in and day out! Whether you’re young or old, sexually active or celibate, insured or paying out of pocket or eligible for sliding-scale fees, we’re here to share our expertise with you.

The word “herpes” comes from an ancient Greek word that means “to creep,” after the “creeping” nature of skin lesions that might spread across areas of one’s body. We now know that the herpes simplex virus can “creep” up and down nerves, retreating to nerve cells to go dormant and returning back to the surface of the skin to cause symptoms or “shed” new virus particles. (Like a cat sheds fur, so too can people shed viruses.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea, Women, and the Pre-Antibiotic Era

Penicillin, the first cure for gonorrhea, was developed for mass production in the 1940s.

Penicillin, the first reliable cure for gonorrhea, was mass produced in the 1940s.

It’s Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the achievements of women worldwide — like Margaret Sanger, Rosalind Franklin, and Florence Nightingale, or contemporary heroes like Wangari Maathai. But it may also be a time to examine some of the sadder aspects of womanhood, including the increased burden gonorrhea imposes on women. While gonorrhea is no picnic for anyone, it wreaks the most havoc in female reproductive tracts. In fact, before antibiotics, gonorrhea was a leading cause of infertility — one 19th century physician attributed 90 percent of female infertility to gonorrhea. Not only that, but the effects of gonorrhea could seriously reduce a woman’s overall quality of life.


With gonorrhea becoming more resistant to antibiotics, the CDC warns of a return to the pre-antibiotic era.


Gonorrhea is described by written records dating back hundreds of years B.C. Ancient Greeks treated it with cold baths, massage, “cooling” foods, and vinegar. In the Middle Ages, Persians might have recommended sleeping in a cool bed with a metal plate over the groin. A bit to the west, Arabs tried to cure gonorrhea with injections of vinegar into the urethra. Kings of medieval England might have had their gonorrhea treated with injections of breast milk, almond milk, sugar, and violet oil.

Although gonorrhea is as ancient an STD as they come, because women rarely have symptoms while men usually do, for much of history it was mostly discussed in terms of men. The name gonorrhea itself derives from the ancient Greek words for “seed flow” — gonorrhea was thought to be characterized by the leakage of semen from the penis. This confusion inspired many misguided notions throughout the millennia, such as the idea that almost all women carried gonorrhea and transmitted it to their unwitting male partners. Continue reading