STD Awareness: Genital Herpes

Herpes viruses inside a cell. Image: CDC

In the most recent Planned Parenthood annual report, a Tucson mother describes her daughter’s mysterious ailment, which stumped doctors at the hospital. Her symptoms included an itchy, tender genital area with painful lesions — but the physicians who “pored over her poor vulva” decided it was nothing to worry about and sent her home. A few days later, though, she called her mother in the middle of the night, sobbing, her condition now worse. “There were lesions, pustules, and the area was deep red,” her mother wrote. So this time, she called the experts: Planned Parenthood.


If you have symptoms, get checked out! An accurate diagnosis is more likely when symptoms are present.


The condition wasn’t nothing — it was genital herpes, and the mother praised Planned Parenthood for “spot[ting] something other pros missed.” Indeed, sexual and reproductive health is what we do — day in and day out! Whether you’re young or old, sexually active or celibate, insured or paying out of pocket or eligible for sliding-scale fees, we’re here to share our expertise with you.

The word “herpes” comes from an ancient Greek word that means “to creep,” after the “creeping” nature of skin lesions that might spread across areas of one’s body. We now know that the herpes simplex virus can “creep” up and down nerves, retreating to nerve cells to go dormant and returning back to the surface of the skin to cause symptoms or “shed” new virus particles. (Like a cat sheds fur, so too can people shed viruses.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is There an STD That Causes Maggots?

Update: In November 2014, another video of a maggot infestation in a woman’s genitals went viral. Many astute readers clued us in to some of the locations of this viral video, but after reviewing the websites, I declined to include an updated link because I found them to be pretty misogynistic and exploitative. The message remains the same, though — yes, it’s possible to get maggots in a vagina; no, it’s not directly caused by an STD; and no, it’s definitely not caused by a “superbug” strain of any STD. Continue reading to get the scoop on how maggots actually can infest genitals, and what we know about their connection to STDs.

Maggots grow up to be flies.

Maggots grow up to be flies.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been confronted by two mysteries. The first was a collection of search terms that led curious Web surfers to our blog. Take a gander at them and see if you can tell why they raised my eyebrows:

  • new std that causes maggots
  • what is the new std superbug that causes maggots
  • stds that cause worms

There were dozens of similar searches leading to this blog, enough to make me take notice — and dig around.


Maggots infesting your genitals isn’t something you need to worry about.


First, the obvious: I Googled “STD maggots” and looked at what came up. While there was absolutely nothing to be found in the legitimate news media, there was a proliferation of recently published stories on websites that I’d never heard of, all containing the same unsourced viral video of someone removing maggots from someone else’s vagina. (Actually, I could only find stills — none of the websites I looked at had functioning video. Not that I was hugely motivated to find one that did.)

The accompanying articles described a female patient with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) said to be called “sex superbug,” an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which caused maggots to grow in her vagina. While there is no STD formally called “sex superbug,” the original author was probably referring to antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, which is caused by a strain of bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae that have evolved resistance to the drugs we use to kill it. Someone would have to track down the video’s source, however, to confirm that the subject actually suffered from gonorrhea in addition to the infestation of maggots. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 13: Treating Penile Skin Lesions

MichelangeloWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.

Today kicks off Men’s Health Week, which means it’s time to remind you that Planned Parenthood Arizona has plenty of men’s health services. Sexual and reproductive health are our bread and butter, and we’re here for you if you need condoms or routine STD screening, or if something is amiss in your nether regions and you’d like us to take a look! One thing we do is evaluate and treat penile skin lesions.


Is something amiss on your penis? We can check it out!


What is a lesion, anyway? “Lesion” is a general term that can refer to any kind of abnormality that appears on your skin or elsewhere in the body, like on an organ. Usually they’re well-defined, as in blisters, spots, bumps, warts, or what have you. A change of appearance on the penis can be caused by all sorts of things. Maybe it’s something minor, like an irritation or an allergic reaction. Or it could be a relatively benign dermatological condition, like pimples or skin tags.

But sometimes, an infectious agent might be at play. You might be suffering from a yeast infection, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or even penile cancer. For the sake of your health — and your peace of mind — you should be evaluated by a health professional, just so you can know for sure what’s going on and receive treatment if necessary. Continue reading

Diagnosing Endometriosis

If you missed it, you can read the previous post explaining the basics of endometriosis here. In this post, we’ll look a little more at how endometriosis is diagnosed as well as some current barriers to diagnosis.


Wait. So you’re telling me that killer cramps of doom aren’t normal? If I did suspect I had endo, how would I go about getting diagnosed?

Endometriosis diagnosis is a tricky thing in that there’s no in-office procedure that can definitively determine whether someone has the condition or not. However, because the “gold standard” test is laparoscopy with biopsy — a surgical procedure — many health care providers prefer to do some in-office tests before recommending laparoscopy. The most common such procedures are pelvic exams and ultrasounds, which may allow a provider to see or feel if the endometrial lesions have formed cysts (known as “endometriomas”), but won’t pick up on smaller lesions.

Another complicating factor is that endometriosis isn’t the only cause of either dysmenorrhea or chronic pelvic pain. Other causes can include uterine fibroids, pelvic floor dysfunction, pelvic inflammatory disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and interstitial cystitis.

Even with laparoscopy, diagnosis isn’t necessarily straightforward. Not only is it a surgical procedure, which carries with it extra expense and risk, but even then, presence of the disease is often missed or underestimated. Seeking out a doctor who specializes in endometriosis can minimize this, but of course, due to geographic, cost, or other access issues, this isn’t always possible. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Antibiotic-Resistant Syphilis

Treponema pallidum under a microscope. Image: Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr., CDC

The image to your right, with lively yellow splotches against a pale green background, is not a long-lost Jackson Pollack piece, and the dark squiggly lines aren’t strands of paint haphazardly splattered onto a canvas. In fact, those squiggly lines are magnified images of the spiral-shaped bacteria species Treponema pallidum. You might not have heard of T. pallidum, but you’ve probably heard of syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease (STD) that these bacteria cause. While syphilis isn’t as common as other STDs, like chlamydia and HPV, it’s still out there, and occasionally communities experience outbreaks. It’s always best for sexually active people to be screened for STDs and practice safer sex.


The evolution of syphilis strains that are resistant to certain antibiotics underscores the need to use antibiotics properly.


Syphilis can inflict serious long-term damage — in fact, before the introduction of antibiotics, syphilis was the worst STD out there! Known as the Great Pox when it descended upon Europe 500 years ago, it could cause large and painful boils. Eventually, natural selection led to T. pallidum’s evolution into a form with milder symptoms, which benefited the bacteria by enabling its less boil-ridden (and presumably more attractive) human hosts to spread it farther and wider. Nevertheless, the symptoms of syphilis, if present, still include infectious sores, and when the disease goes untreated, it can cause severe, possibly fatal, damage to the nervous system.

Back in the day, there were myriad inadequate “treatments” for syphilis, ranging from straight-up quackery to the use of partially effective but toxic chemicals such as mercury. But a century ago, in 1912, a new arsenic-based chemical called Neosalvarsan was hailed as a “magic bullet.” Unfortunately, this treatment took weeks or even more than a year to administer — and had dangerous side effects. Quack treatments continued to flourish, and it wasn’t until the widespread adoption of penicillin in the 1940s that an effective cure with few side effects was available.

But natural selection endures; in fact, by flooding T. pallidum’s habitat with certain antibiotics, we’ve created an environment that favors the organism’s evolution against us. While not as immediately threatening as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, syphilis has been quietly evolving resistance to some of the antibiotics we use to treat it. This underscores the importance of using antibiotics correctly and emphasizing safer-sex practices, such as using latex condoms during vaginal or anal intercourse and during oral contact with a penis. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Intestinal Parasites

Editor’s Note: If you’re wondering if there is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that causes maggots, please see our new article, “Is There an STD That Causes Maggots?”

This colorized scanning electron micrograph shows Giardia lamblia reproducing asexually. Image: Stan Erlandsen, CDC’s Public Health Image Library.

This colorized scanning electron micrograph shows Giardia lamblia reproducing asexually. Image: Stan Erlandsen, CDC’s Public Health Image Library

Most sexually transmitted diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, but some are caused by organisms that are classified as completely different lifeforms. Trichomoniasis, for example, is caused by a protozoan organism; protozoa occupy their own kingdom, separate from plants, animals, and bacteria. Intestinal parasites are often protozoan organisms, but can also include parasitic worms (which are members of the animal kingdom). They are spread through contact with fecal matter — and as such, they can be transmitted sexually as well as nonsexually. Intestinal parasites are usually transmitted by fecal contamination of food or water, and are most common in areas with insufficient sewage treatment and untreated water in the wilderness. Some pathogens, however, have low infectious doses, making their sexual transmission more likely.


What has eight flagella and can live in your intestines?


Oral contact with the anus, also called anilingus or rimming, is the primary means of the sexual transmission of these pathogens. Putting fingers or hands in your mouth after they have had contact with the anus is also risky. Other modes of transmission include oral sex, as genitals can be contaminated with feces, as well as sharing sex toys and other equipment. For these reasons, it is very important to use dental dams or latex gloves during contact with the anus; to clean the anus before engaging in rimming; to clean or use condoms on shared sex toys; and to use condoms or dental dams during oral sex. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Cytomegalovirus and Molluscum Contagiosum

Most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are caused by microorganisms – lifeforms that are too small to be seen without a microscope. Many STDs, however, are caused by viruses, which technically aren’t even alive. Rather, viruses are pieces of genetic information that are stored in protein capsules. When these capsules come into contact with a host cell, the genetic information is able to enter the cell and hijack its machinery so that the host cell manufactures copies of the virus, as well as potentially harmful viral proteins. Many well-known STDs, such as herpes and HIV/AIDS, are caused by viruses, but this month we will focus on two lesser-known viral STDs, cytomegalovirus and molluscum contagiosum. Your local Planned Parenthood health center, as well as other clinics, health departments, and private health-care providers, can help you get a diagnosis and treatment for these STDs.

Cytomegalovirus leaves granules inside its host cells called inclusion bodies, pictured here. Photograph from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library.

Cytomegalovirus leaves granules inside its host cells called inclusion bodies, pictured here. Image: Public Health Image Library, CDC

Cytomegalovirus

The bad news is that most people are infected with cytomegalovirus (CMV) at some point in their lives. About 80 percent of the U.S. population is estimated to be carriers, about 4 in 10 Americans are infected with CMV before puberty (usually through contact with saliva), and adults can be reinfected through sexual activity. The good news is that among healthy adults, a CMV infection usually does not have any symptoms, though if they do they could seem like a mild case of mono. Being reinfected with the virus later in life also carries with it only a small risk for symptoms in healthy adults.

And back to the bad news: While an infection with cytomegalovirus usually does not have symptoms, if someone is infected while pregnant it can harm the fetus. About 1 in 100 U.S. babies is infected with CMV, but usually doesn’t show symptoms. Every year in the United States, around 5,500 babies are born with symptomatic cytomegalic inclusion disease (CID). Symptoms of CID vary, but the most severe include mental retardation and hearing loss. If the mother was already infected before conception, there is a 2 percent chance the virus will be transmitted to the fetus; however, if the infection occurs during pregnancy, this risk jumps into the 40 to 50 percent range. Continue reading