Trichomoniasis, sometimes called "trich," is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by an infection by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis.1 This parasite can be spread via sexual contact (oral, vaginal, and/or anal). It typically affects the vulva, vagina, and/or cervix in women, as well as the urethra in both men and women. Rarely, trichomoniasis parasites will affect other body parts, such as the anus or mouth.

It's been suggested, perhaps surprisingly so, that trichomoniasis is the most common curable STD in the United States.Currently, an estimated 3.7 million people are living with it, despite the fact that it can be well-treated with antibiotics such as metronidazole or tinidazole.

Unfortunately, it's possible to transmit trichomoniasis to others even without being aware of one's status. If left untreated, trichomoniasis can lead to a variety of complications, some of which can be serious. To help reduce the transmission of trichomoniasis and help people and their partners remain healthy, raising awareness about the condition is instrumental.

Risk Factors Associated with Trichomoniasis

As with any sexually transmitted disease, any person who is sexually active can be considered at risk for contracting trichomoniasis, although certain people have higher risk than others. This includes:

  • Anyone with multiple sexual partners.
  • Anyone who doesn't use condoms or practice other methods of safer sex.
  • Women, including women who have sex with women and women who have sex with men. (While it affects them less frequently, men still can be affected.)
  • Women older than the age of 40. Survey data actually suggests that the prevalence of trichomoniasis among women over the age of 40 is twice what was previously thought.2

Complications of Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is common, but it's important to realize that most people who have this STD will exhibit no signs nor symptoms. This means that without regular STD testing, a person may unknowingly transmit the STD to their sexual partner(s) and may increase their risk of associated complications. These include:

  • An increased risk for HIV. People with trichomoniasis are more at risk for contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) when exposed to the virus compared to other people without trichomoniasis. This is thought to be because trichomoniasis can present with symptoms such as inflammation and sores which can make it easier for HIV to get into a person's body. If a person already has HIV, then trichomoniasis can increase the risk that they will pass the virus to their sexual partner(s).
  • For women, an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is a serious and potentially life-threatening infection of the upper parts of a woman's reproductive organs, including the uterus and fallopian tubes.3 Diagnosis of PID is based off of an assessment of medical history, tests, and tests (including ones to rule out other conditions which may present like PID). Signs and symptoms of PID include abnormal vaginal odor or discharge, lower abdominal pain, fever, a burning sensation with urination, bleeding and/or pain during sex, and spotting in between periods. Without treatment, PID can lead to complications such as scar tissue formation on and around the fallopian tubes, which can cause a blockage. While rare, PID can also lead to life-threatening conditions such as peritonitis or abscess.4
  • The risk for re-infection. Successful treatment of trichomoniasis doesn't prevent a person from contracting the STD again. In fact, about 1 in 5 people who are treated for trich are re-infected within 3 months.1 To reduce the risk of re-infection following treatment for trichomoniasis, a person should be sure to have their sexual partner(s) tested for trichomoniasis, as well, and refrain from sexual intercourse for 7-10 days following treatment, or as advised by a physician. And if any symptoms develop—including itching or burning with urination and unusual discharge­—it's time to get re-tested again for trich or other STDs.

Beyond causing these health risks, having trichomoniasis can lead to a variety of emotional and cognitive issues such as anxiety, embarrassment, and an unsatisfying sex life.

Complications for Pregnant Women with Trichomoniasis and Their Infants and Babies

As mentioned, untreated trichomoniasis increases a woman's risk for PID. Unfortunately, a history of PID increases a woman's risk of reproductive issues.

This may include infertility, which means a woman has a harder time becoming or staying pregnant. PID caused by trichomoniasis can also increase the risk of having an ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when the fertilized egg implants somewhere in the reproductive tract other than a woman's uterine wall.

Pregnant women with trichomoniasis also have an increased risk of having a premature (born before 37 weeks gestation) or a low-birth-weight baby (born at less than five and a half pounds). Both prematurity and low-birth weight are associated with a variety of developmental and health complications for infants and children.5

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding who have trichomoniasis should talk to their doctor about their treatment options. Certain medications, such as tinidazole, may not be safe to take while breastfeeding, or should not be taken within the first three months of pregnancy.5

Anyone else who is being treated for trichomoniasis should also be sure to take their medications exactly as prescribed by their physician. Failing to take antibiotic medications correctly may increase the risk of drug-resistant strains of parasites and bacteria, which can make future infections harder to treat.

The good news is that with a proper course of antibiotics, trichomoniasis is relatively easy to treat. However, successful treatment of trichomoniasis may not cure other complications caused by the STD, including scarring caused by PID. This is why early screening and diagnosis is so essential for improving outcomes, for both men and women. The sooner trich can be detected, the sooner treatment can begin and the less likely it will be for someone to experience more serious complications.

Are you sexually active? Getting regularly tested for STDs keeps you well-informed about your sexual health and helps you and your partners stay healthy. If you're ready to get screened and are interested in doing it in the privacy of your own home, request your STD test kit now.

References

  1. Trichomoniasis—CDC Fact Sheet. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/trichomonas/stdfact-trichomoniasis.htm
  2. Sexually Transmitted Parasite Trichomonas Vaginalis Twice as Prevalent in Women Over 40, Survey Shows. (2011). Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/sexually_transmitted_parasite_trichomonas_vaginalis_twice_as_prevalent_in_women_over_40_survey_shows
  3. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)—CDC Fact Sheet. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/pid/stdfact-pid.htm
  4. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. (2011). Retrieved from https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/pelvic-inflammatory-disease/
  5. Trichomoniasis. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/trichomoniasis