STD Awareness: Is Chlamydia Bad?

chlamydiaPerhaps your sexual partner has informed you that they have been diagnosed with chlamydia, and you need to get tested, too. Maybe you’ve been notified by the health department that you might have been exposed to chlamydia. And it’s possible that you barely know what chlamydia even is, let alone how much you should be worried about it.

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, especially among young people. It can be spread by oral, vaginal, and anal sex, particularly when condoms or dental dams were not used correctly or at all. It is often a “silent” infection, meaning that most people with chlamydia don’t experience symptoms — you can’t assume you don’t have it because you feel fine, and you can’t assume your partner doesn’t have it because they look fine. If you’re sexually active, the best way to protect yourself is to know your partner’s STD status and to practice safer sex.


Chlamydia increases risk for HIV, leads to fertility and pregnancy problems, and might increase cancer risk.


The good news about chlamydia is that it’s easy to cure — but first, you need to know you have it! And that’s why it’s important for sexually active people to receive regular STD screening. Left untreated, chlamydia can increase risk of acquiring HIV, can hurt fertility in both males and females, can be harmful during pregnancy, and might even increase risk for a certain type of cancer. So why let it wreak havoc on your body when you could just get tested and take a quick round of antibiotics?

To find out just how seriously you should take chlamydia, let’s answer a few common questions about it.

Can Chlamydia Increase HIV Risk?

Chlamydia does not cause HIV. Chlamydia is caused by a type of bacteria, while HIV is a virus that causes a fatal disease called AIDS. However, many STDs, including chlamydia, can increase risk for an HIV infection, meaning that someone with an untreated chlamydia infection is more likely to be infected with HIV if exposed to the virus. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus

Zika

Zika virus. Image: Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC

I first heard of Zika virus in an epidemiology class, when another student made on offhand remark: “Did you know Zika virus can be transmitted sexually?” Ever vigilant for material for the STD Awareness column, I excitedly scribbled the name of the virus in my notes. But upon further investigation, I found that there were only a couple of documented cases of the sexual transmission of this virus that no one had heard of, and decided there was no reason to freak people out about yet another potential STD when rates of more common STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, were on the upswing.

A year later, Zika virus was splashed across headlines on a daily basis, mostly for its newfound association with birth defects, but also in light of revelations that it could be transmitted by sex.


Access to condoms and reliable contraception is more vital than ever.


While Zika virus is usually transmitted by mosquito bites, the discovery that it can be sexually transmitted made it the only known virus that could be spread both sexually and by mosquitoes. It’s also the only known mosquito-borne virus that can cross the placenta to harm a fetus. Like several other viruses, including CMV and rubella, Zika is implicated in serious birth defects. But many health authorities worry that its potential as a sexually transmitted pathogen is dangerously underestimated. As of August 31, there have been 23 confirmed sexually transmitted cases of Zika virus in the United States — but sexual transmission will rise as the virus jumps into local mosquitoes, which will also make it difficult or impossible to tell if a sexually active Zika patient got the virus from sex or directly from a mosquito.

Earlier this year, sexually transmitted Zika virus in Texas made headlines, with many journalists incorrectly proclaiming it the first known case of sexual transmission. In fact, Zika’s sexual transmission was first documented in 2008, before “Zika” was a household name and the married couple who published their experience in a scientific paper thought they could share their STD status in relative obscurity. Despite referring to themselves as “Patient 1” and “Patient 3,” a science reporter quickly figured it out and (with their permission) revealed their identities in a 2011 article — still years before Zika-bearing mosquitoes would hit the Americas and trigger a microcephaly epidemic that propelled the virus to infamy. Continue reading

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

Teen Talk: What Is Kissing Disease?

kissing diseaseIf you’re a total dork like me, you might have some plush microbes hanging out on your desk or in your bedroom. The one that represents Epstein-Barr virus is especially adorable (look to your right and try not to coo in delight!). I just want to grab it, cuddle up to it, and fall asleep in its pillowy purple-pink embrace.

In reality, Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV for short, is not the most warm-and-fuzzy microbe of the bunch. I’d way rather have a cold. Why? Because EBV causes mono, which is more whimsically known as the kissing disease. And, despite that cute moniker, kissing disease can be most unpleasant.


Take it from one mono survivor: “Mono stinks!”


First, an explanation of why mono is also called the kissing disease. Merely being in the presence of someone with mono won’t put you at risk, even if you’re both in the same room — you need to be actively swapping spit with them to be exposed to the virus. Kissing is probably the most famous way for two people to exchange saliva, but sharing cups, eating utensils, or toothbrushes can do it, too. After exposure to the virus, symptoms could show up in 4 to 6 weeks.

Second, an explanation of why mono can be so terrible. While not all teenagers and young adults who are infected with EBV will develop symptoms, those who do probably won’t enjoy the experience. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, head and body aches, sore throat, and fever. It’s bad enough to have those symptoms for a few days, but mono might seem to go on and on with no end in sight. Most people are better in 2 to 4 weeks, but even then it could take another few weeks to get back to 100 percent. And some unlucky people can experience these symptoms for six months or even longer! In addition to these nasty symptoms, serious complications are possible. 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

STD Awareness: Why Should You Care About Oral Gonorrhea?

Image: CDC

An illustration of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. Image: CDC

When I say “gonorrhea,” you might think of genitals that feel as though they have been set ablaze, or perhaps a viscous fluid oozing from the urethra. But gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, can also set up camp in the pharynx after being transmitted into a mouth and down a throat when its new host gave oral sex to its old host. Indeed, performing oral sex on multiple partners has been found to increase risk for an oral gonorrhea infection (more properly called pharyngeal gonorrhea).

If you read our September 2012 article on gonorrhea of the throat, you might remember these fun facts: Oral gonorrhea goes away within three months, even without treatment! Plus, these infections rarely have symptoms. Why, then, should you care about a gonorrhea infection in your throat? You’re not likely to notice it’s there, and it’ll go away on its own anyway.


Many researchers believe that the throat is an incubator for antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.


Well, aside from the possibility of transmitting a gonorrhea infection from your throat to someone’s genitals, there’s one other thing to care about: the development of antibiotic resistance.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. If gonorrhea evolves complete resistance to the drugs we use to cure it, we could find ourselves sent back in time, to the days when gonorrhea was untreatable — and responsible for infertility, blindness, and chronic pain. While scientists figure out how to address this emerging threat, you can do your part by avoiding gonorrhea in the first place — and that includes using condoms and dental dams to prevent oral gonorrhea infections.

So, while it sounds like a blessing that gonorrhea of the throat rarely has symptoms, there’s actually a drawback: An oral gonorrhea infection probably won’t be effectively treated — or even identified in the first place. And these hidden throat infections are likely to be helping to drive the development of antibiotic resistance. Continue reading

The Best of 2014: Our Bloggers Pick Their Favorite Posts

The year 2014 was a big one here at the blog — we published 146 new pieces, many of which educated our readers about our endorsed candidates during the midterm elections. In addition to energizing voters, we fostered health literacy with our pieces about sexual, reproductive, and preventive health care, and promoted social justice causes with articles on women’s and LGBTQ rights. Below, we share our bloggers’ best pieces from 2014!

kidsCare joined our blogging team this year, and hit the ground running with two consecutive posts about her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Africa. In August, she observed National Immunization Awareness Month with a reflection on the importance of vaccination — both in the developing world and here in the United States. During her time in the Peace Corps, Care saw the devastation that diseases like measles, meningitis, and chickenpox wrought in the communities she served. Access to vaccines was not taken for granted in Western Africa — it was seen as a matter of life or death. Later, when Care returned to the United States — where many of us do take this access for granted — she discovered first-hand what happens in states with high vaccination-refusal rates. So if you don’t think skipping shots is a big deal, think again!

pillflag thumbnailMatt’s posts tackled a lot of topics this year, but in light of last month’s less-than-stellar election results, we’d like to shine the spotlight on his post from last June, Six Things Arizona Is Doing Right. Across the state, communities are recognizing the importance of comprehensive sex education, affirming transgender rights, promoting body acceptance, and fighting against domestic violence! So if Arizona politics have been bumming you out lately, read about six things we’re doing right, from the Capitol to the Pascua Yaqui Nation, and from Tempe to Tucson!

zombies thumbnailAnna focused mostly on sexually transmitted diseases this year, but one of her favorite posts was an evaluation of different birth control methods’ suitability during the zombie apocalypse. Maybe if more female writers were hired in Hollywood, “minutiae” like family planning would be addressed in zombie-filled scripts and screenplays. But instead, the female characters that populate these narratives don’t seem overly worried about unintended pregnancies (and somehow find the time and the supplies for the removal of their underarm hair). Until our zombie dramas are more realistic in their handling of women’s issues, be prepared for the worst and read Anna’s assessment of your best bets for birth control. (Her pick for the apocalypse, by the way, is the implant!)

afghan girlRachel observed the International Day of the Girl Child in October by focusing on sexual violence against girls. Unsurprisingly, this problem can be found in every corner of the earth, and Rachel discusses atrocities in both the developing world and in industrialized nations. Despite deep-seated misogyny that permeates many cultures, positive changes are made possible by the work of activists, from young girls risking their lives fighting for the right to education in Pakistan, to advocates lobbying to strengthen penalties for convicted rapists, as in the case of Audrie’s Law, signed by California’s governor last October. Rachel’s provocative, disturbing, and informative post asks us if empowering girls is good enough — or if we also need to address the root of the problem, which lies with the perpetrators and their enablers.

clinic escortsStacey, a former clinic escort, helped our patients for more than a year, and in March she drew from that experience in an incredibly powerful piece on the importance of protecting the buffer zone, the distance that anti-abortion protesters were made to keep between themselves and patients. The buffer zone was one of the tools we used to protect our patients’ dignity and safety. It was no surprise, then, that the buffer zone came under attack this year when it was challenged in front of the Supreme Court. What did come as a surprise to many reproductive-justice advocates, however, was the highest court’s unanimous decision to strike down buffer zones for protesters at abortion clinics, helping to make 2014 a dismal year in women’s rights.

Gay Liberation Front 1969Marcy’s post on the Stonewall Riots broke traffic records on our blog — not bad for one of our newest bloggers — so if you missed it the first time around, check it out now. Forty-five years ago, the modern LGBTQ movement was born as the patrons of a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn rose up against police. The LGBTQ population was often a target for harassment by police, and the Stonewall Riots turned that violence back on their oppressors. We now celebrate Pride every June in honor of the Stonewall Riots, and while our society has made tremendous gains over the past 45 years, we still have a lot of work to do. Learn about the riots themselves, as well as the current state of LGBTQ rights in the United States.

two women thumbnailMichelle is another new blogger, and her inaugural post discussed a gynecological disorder called PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is characterized by a constellation of symptoms that can include irregular periods, weight gain, sluggishness, thinning hair, depression, acne, infertility, and ovarian cysts. It affects an estimated 5 million Americans, but it’s thought to be underdiagnosed and its symptoms are largely stigmatized. Michelle lays out an interesting case for how this stigma might contribute to doctors failing to recognize it: It’s easier to blame someone’s dietary choices or physical-activity levels for weight gain and fatigue, rather than look more closely at underlying physiological problems, such as hormone imbalances, that could actually be causing the sufferers’ symptoms. For Michelle, awareness is key, so check out her informative post!

NOW thumbnailTori taught us about the Scheidler v. NOW “trilogy” of Supreme Court cases, which pitted anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler against feminist advocacy group National Organization for Women. In case you’re scratching your head, wondering what the heck Scheidler v. NOW is and why it’s important, check out Tori’s fantastic summary of this series of cases. She describes the atmosphere of violence that increasingly characterized the anti-abortion movement throughout the 1980s, eventually giving rise to a lawsuit, filed by NOW, claiming that abortion protesters’ tactics qualified as extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down buffer zones, the anti-abortion movement’s history of harassment, vandalism, and violence is more relevant than ever.

SILCS_diaphragm thumbnailRebecca is a pharmacist who brings her passion for reproductive autonomy into focus with her series of posts on contraceptive methods. In August, she informed us about a one-size-fits-most, over-the-counter diaphragm that should hit U.S. pharmacies in 2015. Although it might kick off a resurgence in the diaphragm’s popularity in the industrialized world, it was actually developed to make effective contraception more accessible in developing countries. As Rebecca told us, we Americans are very privileged to have access to such a wide range of contraceptive options — but it’s important to remember that the variety of choices we enjoy isn’t available to everyone, who might face cultural, financial, or logistical barriers when it comes to having the means to control their fertility. Check out Rebecca’s post about Caya, the next generation of diaphragms, coming to a pharmacy near you but helping women worldwide!