Experts are warning people to be aware of the potential impact on fertility following a recent rise in STIs.
In 2022, there were 392,453 diagnoses of new STIs among residents of England, a significant increase of 28.8% compared to 2021 figures.
Further figures, from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found that Chlamydia diagnoses increased by 24.3%, syphilis diagnoses increased by 15.2%, and gonorrhoea diagnoses increased by 50.3%.
STIs are often overlooked when discussing fertility, despite many leading to fertility issues, so to mark National Fertility Awareness Week experts are urging people to be aware of the infections which can potentially impact fertility and the signs to look out for, so they can be diagnosed and treated before they become more serious.
"With many STIs on the rise in the UK, it is important for people to know that STIs can affect fertility and the symptoms to watch out for, to allow people to get tested and treated before any long-term reproductive damage occurs," says Dr Vanessa Apea, NHS sexual health consultant and medical director at Preventx.
Which STIs affect fertility?
If left untreated chlamydia can spread to the womb, ovaries or fallopian tubes and cause a condition known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can cause difficulty in getting pregnant, increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, and infertility.
Chlamydia symptoms include painful urination, unusual vaginal discharge, and bleeding between periods and after sex.
Gonorrhoea can also result in PID, if left untreated. This can lead to serious issues including long-term pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility.
Symptoms are similar to those seen with chlamydia, however, five in 10 women infected with gonorrhoea will not experience obvious symptoms.
Syphilis can also affect fertility if it isn't diagnosed and treated quickly. If you're pregnant and have syphilis, the NHS says you can pass it on to your baby before they're born. This is known as congenital syphilis.
Having syphilis during pregnancy can also increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth.
Syphilis symptoms include small sores found on the vagina and anus, white patches in the mouth, and swollen glands.
4. Herpes simplex (HSV)
Women who have had genital herpes before pregnancy usually have no issues with their baby’s health. However, having genital herpes during pregnancy can put babies at risk of developing a serious illness called neonatal herpes.
Common symptoms can include pain inside the vagina, unusual vaginal discharge, and fever.
5. Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Unlike previous STIs discussed, HPV is a common group of viruses that do not cause problems in most people but can lead to cancer.
HPV is often asymptomatic, however, there can be painless growths or lumps around the vagina and anus.
Cancers linked to HPV include cervical cancer, vulval cancer, and vaginal cancer. In cervical cancer, abnormal growth in cells can damage the ovaries, causing infertility. If diagnosed at an advanced stage, treatment is usually more intensive and can also lead to infertility.
Trichomoniasis is caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis (TV). Symptoms include soreness, swelling and itching around the vagina, and pain during urination or sex.
"Women, in particular, can remain with the TV infection for years, and their distressing symptoms are often misdiagnosed or dismissed," explains Dr Apea. "If left untreated, TV causes complications in pregnancy, such as premature birth or low birth weight."
7. Hepatitis C
While not technically an STI, Hepatitis C is a virus that can be transmitted through rough sex and sharing injecting equipment. Hepatitis C damages the liver over time and can eventually lead to cirrhosis, which may cause infertility.
If infected with hepatitis C during pregnancy, there is a 4-6% risk of the baby contracting the virus.
Although it is possible for children to clear the infection naturally, some will develop chronic infection and may eventually present liver damage.
Hepatitis C can remain symptomless for decades, with around 70,000 people across England unaware they have the virus. If you think you might be at risk, you can order a free home testing kit via the NHS.
How do I find out if I have an STI?
To limit the risks STIs pose to our fertility, it is important to look after your sexual health.
"If you are sexually active, using protection and getting tested for STIs regularly – even if you’re not presenting symptoms – is important," says Dr Apea. "This can allow STIs to be identified and treated more quickly, reducing the likelihood of the infection developing into something more serious."
Fortunately, it is easier than ever to get tested for an STI. You can visit your nearest sexual health clinic or order an at-home testing kit via an online service linked to the NHS.
To find out if a free test kit is available in your area, visit www.sh.uk
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