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If you want children in your future, there’s an important step you can take now to protect your fertility: Avoid sexually transmitted disease (STD). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that STD infections cause infertility in at least 24,000 women each year.

What Are STDs?

STDs (also referred to as sexually transmitted infections or STIs) are bacterial or viral diseases spread through sexual contact, involving the penis, vagina, anus or mouth, with someone who has an STD. 

Common STDs include gonorrhea, chlamydia, human papillomavirus (HPV), genital herpes, syphilis and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Some STDs spread through body fluids like semen, vaginal fluid or blood. Some can be spread by contact with infected skin. You can protect yourself from STDs by avoiding risky sexual behavior.

“The number one cause of infertility is disease in a woman’s fallopian tubes,” says Steven Lindheim, MD.

What’s Considered Risky Sexual Behavior?

Your chances of getting an STD increase when:

  • You have sex with more than one partner. The more partners, the greater your risk.
  • You have sex with someone who has more than one partner.
  • You or your partner have had sex with other people in the past. One of you may be carrying an STD from a previous partner and not know it.  
  • You have sex without using a condom. The CDC recommends always using a latex condom. 

You can have an STD and not even know it. That’s why it’s a good idea to get tested, and ask your partner to get tested, before you engage in sex. The CDC recommends annual screening of all sexually active women younger than 25 years – and older women with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners, or a sex partner who has an STI.

Many STDs can be successfully treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early.

How Can STDs Cause Infertility?

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“The number one cause of infertility is disease in a woman’s fallopian tubes,” says Steven Lindheim, MD, of Director, Reproductive Endocrine and Infertility, Wright State Physicians Obstetrics and Gynecology. “STDs can be one of the reasons a woman gets fallopian tube disease.” 

Under normal conditions, tiny hairs in your fallopian tubes push a fertilized egg from your ovary to your uterus, where it implants and develops into a baby. “STDs can damage those tiny hairs so they can’t do their job. STDs can prevent the egg from ever reaching the uterus and result in a tubal pregnancy, with the possibility of losing your fallopian tube,” Dr. Lindheim explains. 

STDs, primarily chlamydia and gonorrhea, can put you at risk for pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility.

Your fertility is fragile, says Dr. Lindheim. He routinely advises women to protect their fertility not only by avoiding risky sexual behavior but also by avoiding other causes of infertility including smoking, exposure to toxins, and being overweight or underweight.  

STDs can also cause infertility in men. In rare cases, chlamydia infection can spread to the epididymis, the tube that carries sperm. This causes pain, fever and, in rare cases, sterility.

When untreated, gonorrhea can also cause male sterility.

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