Several sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections are becoming much more common in the United States. In fact, according to federal health data, the U.S. has seen cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis rise to their highest combined level on record.
While this is bad news in the short-term as the people who get diagnosed with these STDs and others will have to deal with getting treated or finding ways to manage untreatable STDs, these increases portend even more problems down the road. That’s because in addition to causing symptoms all on their own, several STDs, if left untreated, can wreak havoc on the body, leading to serious health implications.
Let’s explore the top five major health conditions that can be caused by an untreated STD.
Scientists had suspected there was a link between cervical cancer and sexual behavior for as long as a century before definitive proof linked cancer of the cervix to a common sexually transmitted disease, human papillomavirus.
Today, HPV, the single most common STD in the world, is the main cause not only of cervical cancer (the virus accounts for more than 90% of all cases of that type of cancer) but of the majority of many other cancers of sexual and reproductive organs and the throat. Here’s a look at the estimated percentage of cancers caused by HPV:
- Cervix: 91%
- Anus: 91%
- Vagina: 75%
- Throat: 70%
- Vulva: 69%
- Penis: 63%
HPV is not the only STD that can cause cancer or raise a person’s risk of developing cancer. Viral hepatitis B, which is primarily sexually transmitted, and viral hep C, which is less commonly an STD but can be transmitted sexually, can cause liver cancer.
Additionally, untreated HIV that progresses into AIDS raises a person’s risk of several cancers, including cervical cancer, sarcomas and lymphomas.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is a health problem unto itself, but the increasing use of PrEP and better understanding of HIV prevention helped HIV infection rates drop over the past several years. And for those who are diagnosed with HIV, aggressive treatment can lower their viral load to the point where they aren’t cured but are unable to pass the virus along to sexual partners and prevent their HIV disease from progressing to its third stage, which is AIDS.
Sadly, though, health officials estimate that as many as 1 in 7 people who are infected with HIV are unaware of it. These individuals, in addition to not getting treatment that can help them stave off AIDS, are at a much higher risk of unwittingly transmitting the virus to others.
An AIDS diagnosis is made after a sufficient decline in the body’s production of cells that fight off infection, so while AIDS itself is not a cause of death, the disease attacks and eventually destroys the body’s ability to protect itself from other infections. The most common of those opportunistic infections in the U.S. include cervical cancer, encephalopathy, Kaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma and pneumocystis pneumonia.
3. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Several STDs if left untreated can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID. PID is an infection of the female sexual organs, which can include the fallopian tubes, ovaries and uterus. The disease is caused by the presence of bacteria, such as that from an STD, in the vagina or cervix that then travels to other organs.
While it’s possible to develop PID without becoming infected with an STD if the normal bacteria present in the vagina travel into the reproductive organs, two of the biggest causes are untreated chlamydia and gonorrhea. Other common STD-related causes of PID include trichomoniasis (trich) and syphilis, and bacterial vaginosis, which is not technically an STD, is currently suspected by many researchers to cause PID in some cases.
If it goes undetected and untreated PID can cause serious long-term problems like chronic pain, ectopic pregnancy and infertility. The estimated prevalence of PID among American women is about 4.4%.
4. Congenital Syphilis
When the CDC in late 2019 reported on its most recent STD statistics, the agency sounded the alarm on a troubling increase in the number and rate of congenital syphilis, which is when an unborn baby contracts syphilis from an infected mother.
In fact, deaths of newborns from congenital syphilis increased by more than 20% in just one year, and cases of the disease in newborns rose by 40%. In addition to increasing the risk of death of newborns, congenital syphilis makes several issues much more common, including:
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
As many as 4 in 10 babies born to women with untreated syphilis will be stillborn or die from congenital syphilis as newborns. Syphilis, including congenital syphilis, is easily treated and cured in most cases, but babies who aren’t treated as soon as possible after birth have a higher risk of death, as well as other health complications, some of which may be untreatable:
- Enlarged liver and spleen
- Skin rash
- Deformed bones
- Brain and nerve disorders
5. Organ Failure
Multiple STDs can attack organs in the body, disrupting their function in the short term and causing them to fail completely in the long term. This includes viral STDs, such as HIV and hepatitis, both of which can attack and damage the kidneys and liver, and bacterial STDs, including syphilis, which can attack a host of organs, including the eyes, heart and brain.
- Hepatitis B: Several of the most common symptoms of infections of viral hepatitis, both hep B and hep C, include effects related to liver damage, such as jaundice, nausea and loss of appetite. About 15% of people with chronic hep B will die from liver damage, including cirrhosis or liver cancer.
- HIV: Long-term treatment for HIV includes antiretroviral therapy, or ART, which has been shown to lower the viral load of people who take it every day. While that can give an HIV positive person a more normal expected lifespan, some HIV medications can cause damage to the kidneys.
- Syphilis: Tertiary syphilis, though rare, can cause fatal damage to vital organs of the body, including the brain and heart, as well as the nerves, blood vessels, bones, liver and joints. Untreated syphilis can progress into tertiary syphilis as many as 30 years after infection. Two other types of syphilis, neurosyphilis and ocular syphilis, both of which can cause organ damage, can happen at any stage of syphilis.
In the short term, STDs can be an annoyance or embarrassment. But in the long term, STDs that go without being treated or managed can lead to a host of other health problems, up to and including fatal implications. The good news is that all of the STDs on this list, even HIV, can either be prevented, cured or managed to reduce the risk of long-term health impacts.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New CDC Report: STDs Continue to Rise in the U.S. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2019/2018-STD-surveillance-report-press-release.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How Many Cancers Are Linked with HPV Each Year? (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/statistics/cases.htm
- National Institutes of Health, Can a sexually transmitted disease or sexually transmitted infection (STD/STI) lead to cancer? (2017.) Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/stds/conditioninfo/cancer
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV, Statistics Overview. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/overview/index.html
- HIV.gov, U.S. Statistics, Fast Facts. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics
- Office on Women’s Health, Pelvic inflammatory disease. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/pelvic-inflammatory-disease
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) - CDC Fact Sheet. (2017.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/pid/stdfact-pid-detailed.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Congenital Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-congenital-syphilis.htm
- NCBI, Renal manifestations of sexually transmitted diseases: sexually transmitted diseases and the kidney. (2005.) Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15844383
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HIV and Kidney Disease. (2019.) Retrieved from https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/26/99/hiv-and-kidney-disease