STD Awareness: Will STDs Go Away on Their Own?

teensCan gonorrhea go away without treatment? Does chlamydia eventually clear up? Can trichomoniasis go away on its own? These are the kinds of questions people pose to Google before Google sends them here — at least that’s what I learned by looking at the blog’s stats. They’re tricky questions to tackle, and for so many reasons.

Some viral STDs stay with you for life, such as herpes and HIV. Others, such as hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV), can be prevented with vaccines but cannot be cured. It’s also possible for the immune system to defeat hepatitis B virus and HPV — but in some cases, these viruses are able to settle in for the long haul, causing chronic infections that can endure for life and even lead to cancer.


Left untreated, syphilis can kill, and gonorrhea can cause infertility.


Non-viral STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, can be cured. However, they usually don’t have symptoms, or symptoms can come and go, making it seem like an infection went away when it actually didn’t. You can’t know your STD status without getting tested, and you can’t self-diagnose an STD based on symptoms and then assume the infection went away when symptoms subside. Getting tested can uncover a problem and clear the way for treatment.

Nonetheless, people want to know if an STD can go away by itself — but there aren’t many studies on the “natural history” of curable STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. Studying the natural course of a curable infection would require that scientists put their subjects at risk of the dangers of long-term infection, and no ethics board would approve such an experiment. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Mycoplasma genitalium

Image of Mycoplasma genitalium adapted from American Society for Microbiology.

“I’m not small, I’m just streamlined!” Image of Mycoplasma genitalium adapted from American Society for Microbiology.

In November and December of last year, headlines touting a “new” STD made an ever-so-minor flurry across the Internet. CNN referred to it as “mycoplasma genitalium, or MG” — Mycoplasma genitalium is the name of the teardrop-shaped bacteria that can cause several diseases in the urinary or reproductive tracts, such as urethritis and pelvic inflammatory disease.

M. genitalium is the smallest living organism known to science, having “devolved” from more complex organisms — but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch! While these bacteria have surely been around for millennia, we only discovered them in the 1980s. Since then, we’ve known that M. genitalium fits the profile of a sexually transmitted pathogen — the only reason it made the news last year was that a team of British researchers published further evidence that this bug is indeed sexually transmitted and capable of causing disease.


Genital mycoplasmas can be cured — but a doctor needs to know what she’s looking for in order to prescribe the correct antibiotic!


An infection with M. genitalium could more generally be called a “genital mycoplasma.” The term “genital mycoplasmas” refers to a category of several different species of sexually transmitted bacteria, most notably Mycoplasma genitalium, but also less common species, such as Mycoplasma hominis, Ureaplasma urealyticum, and Ureaplasma parvum. M. genitalium is considered an “emerging pathogen,” because it is only over the past couple of decades that technology has allowed us to study these bacteria, along with other genital mycoplasmas.

Risk factors for infection include multiple sexual partners and not using condoms during sex. It is thought that most people with an M. genitalium infection don’t have immediate symptoms — 94 percent of infected men and 56 percent of infected women won’t notice anything amiss. That doesn’t mean it can’t do damage. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can I Use Plastic Wrap as a Dental Dam During Oral Sex?

plastic wrapIf you read this blog — or any sexual health website, really — you’ll probably see dental dams getting a lot of props. A dental dam (not to be confused with a female condom) is a square piece of latex that can cover the vaginal opening or the anus. Anyone wishing to avoid the oral transmission of STDs like herpes, gonorrhea, HPV, syphilis, chlamydia, and intestinal parasites, dental-dam advocates say, should use a latex barrier. Most people, however, have probably never even seen a dental dam, and they are not widely used. Perhaps their unpopularity is related to myths about oral sex being safe sex (it’s not!); perhaps it’s due to dental dams being expensive or difficult to find.


Plastic wrap hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA for STD prevention, and no studies have assessed its effectiveness in reducing disease risk during oral sex.


Some safer-sex aficionados have found ways around that, though. They might cut the tips off of condoms and make incisions along the sides, creating little latex rectangles. An even easier and cheaper option lies in plastic wrap, which many people use as a barrier while performing cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus). It is inexpensive, easy to find, odorless, and tasteless, and can be purchased without even a hint of embarrassment (unless perhaps your other purchases include duct tape, cucumbers, and clothes pins). And it can be pulled off the roll in sheets as long as your heart desires!

Planned Parenthood endorses the use of plastic wrap for oral sex when dental dams aren’t available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and AIDS.gov both recommend plastic wrap for use during rimming. Health authorities, such as AIDS.gov and the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, recommend non-microwavable Saran Wrap, because microwave-safe Saran Wrap has tiny pores to let out steam — which might also let viruses and bacteria through. Continue reading

The Best of 2015: A Year of Blogging

Every week, we publish new material on the blog — a feat that would not be possible without the dedication and talents of our amazing volunteer bloggers! It is our not-so-humble opinion that the blog publishes high-quality, informative, insightful, and sometimes downright fun pieces, and the entire Planned Parenthood Arizona family is so proud to have it as a showcase. To commemorate another successful year of blogging, we asked our bloggers to pick their favorite posts from 2015.

holding hands from backRebecca usually writes about contraception, but in 2015 she conceptualized the new Teen Talk series, aimed at our younger readers but still plenty relevant to people of all ages. One of her favorite pieces was about the decision to abstain from sexual activity. While we live in a culture in which a lot of us feel pressure to have sex — even before we’re ready — we all have the right to make our own choices about sex, including the choice not to have it! For some of us, saying no can be hard, but can also be liberating. The issue of abstinence is highly fraught in our culture, but we love Rebecca’s deft and respectful handling of the topic.

gloria thumbnailAnne is our newest blogger, and we have been blessed by her lively prose! Anne’s favorite post was called Abortion: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in which she wrote about the growing movement to fight stigma by “shouting our abortions” — rather than whispering about them or staying quiet. Given that 1 in 3 women has had an abortion yet the topic remains so taboo, the issue is largely shrouded in secrecy and silence. Anne shares her own story — and speaks powerfully about why it’s so important to shatter that silence once and for all. If “coming out” was so successful for the LGBTQ community, will it also help foster compassion and spread visibility for the many people who have had abortions?

breastfeedingCynthia was another new addition to the blogging team this year, and her debut post was also her favorite. In August, to celebrate National Breastfeeding Month, Cynthia shared her sweet story of breastfeeding and bonding. She wrote about how breastfeeding her son was the most “rewarding, challenging, frustrating, amazing, and empowering” thing she’s ever done. Breast milk has myriad benefits for both mother and baby, and Cynthia covered many of them in an informative post interwoven with her personal experiences and insights.

Stadium thumbnailMatt continues to write insightful posts about the intersection between the personal and the political. In August, Matt helped herald the football season with his look at how expanding the University of Arizona’s stadium shrunk abortion access in the state. As he so eloquently wrote, “Abortion was never meant to be a bargaining chip. It was sacrificed in 1974 to give more football fans a seat at the game. It’s time undo the damage and give more abortion supporters a seat in the legislature.” Whether you’re a Wildcats fan or simply interested in learning more about this chapter in reproductive-justice history, we think you’ll be fascinated (and enraged) to learn about the stadium deal.

cropped CDC library disease agents gonococciAnna is a graduate student in health sciences who has carved out a niche for herself as our unofficial STD blogger. One topic she keeps coming back to is antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, which is classified as an “urgent threat” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks to the bacteria’s ability to evolve so quickly, we only have one good antibiotic left to cure this serious infection — and no new ones on the horizon. Find out how the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are able to evade our pharmaceutical arsenal, whether they’re having “bacteria sex” with one another or grabbing genes from their cousins. These bugs have a unique talent for altering their genes, which would be admirable if it weren’t so worrying!

Harvey Milk Day thumbnailMichelle celebrated Harvey Milk Day with a touching tribute to this pioneering LGBTQ leader, who would have blown out 85 candles on his birthday cake last May — if his life hadn’t been cut short in a senseless and tragic assassination in 1978. As one of the first openly gay politicians ever to be elected to public office, Milk sponsored an anti-discrimination bill, fought to establish daycare centers for working mothers, helped to increase low-cost housing options, and consistently advocated for the rights of all marginalized communities. Check out Michelle’s piece to learn more about Harvey Milk, what he accomplished, and why his legacy is so important to celebrate!

condom and hand thumbnailJon joined us early this year — first as an intern, and then as a volunteer blogger. We loved the piece he wrote about the place birth control has in his life, especially in a world in which the birth control burden can too often fall on women’s shoulders alone. Jon used condoms to take responsibility for his part in preventing pregnancy, and to boost the effectiveness of his partners’ birth control pills. With typical use, condoms and oral contraceptives can combine to be more than 98 percent effective! For Jon, birth control helped him plan his future, complete his education, and forge relationships — and condoms were an essential component of that toolkit.

standwithpp pic thumbnailKelley actually isn’t a Planned Parenthood volunteer — they’re our public policy manager! That didn’t stop them from contributing some strong pieces to the blog. For Trans Awareness Month, Kelley shared their journey to living authentically — a post that was both heartfelt yet humorous, personal yet universal. In Arizona, Kelley can be fired for their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression — but feels lucky to have found a supportive home with Planned Parenthood. No matter what month it is, Planned Parenthood supports the trans community because we stand for autonomy over one’s own body, identity, and decisions.

STD Awareness: Ceftriaxone-Resistant Gonorrhea

syringeNestled in the throat of a Japanese woman was a collection of clones that scientists abducted from their temporary habitat and christened H041 — a humdrum moniker for a strain of bacteria that would burn headlines in medical journals. Though the bacteria never caused symptoms in their host, they lingered in her throat from at least January until April of 2009, when a swab finally tested negative. Rather than succumbing to repeated bombardment by an antibiotic called ceftriaxone, the infection probably just went away on its own — as oral gonorrhea infections tend to do.


Resistance to ceftriaxone, our last good gonorrhea drug, has been reported in Japan, Australia, Sweden, France, and Spain.


The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat.” We have one remaining first-line gonorrhea treatment left: extended-spectrum cephalosporins, which include cefixime, which is taken orally, and ceftriaxone, which is administered as a shot. Resistance to cefixime was first documented in 1999, leaving ceftriaxone as our best remaining option, and the CDC’s first choice for treating gonorrhea. There are no good alternatives to ceftriaxone remaining, which is why reports of ceftriaxone-resistant gonorrhea are so deeply troubling.

What made H041 special was that it was the first extensively drug-resistant strain of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. With an unusually high level of resistance to ceftriaxone — four to eight times higher than the previous record holder — the strain was also resistant to a slew of other antibiotics: penicillin and its relatives, fluoroquinolones, macrolides, tetracycline, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, chloramphenicol, nitrofurantoin, cefpodoxime, cefixime, ciprofloxacin, and levofloxacin — and had reduced susceptibility to azithromycin to boot.

Another thing that made H041 special — as special as clones can be, anyway — is that it never reappeared. After its discovery, researchers in Kyoto and Osaka intensified their surveillance, trying to uncover it again and track its spread through the population. However, their search for H041 turned up empty handed. But other ceftriaxone-resistant strains have been documented around the world. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Bacterial Vaginosis a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Not to scale: Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is the most common vaginal infection among people 15 to 44 years of age. It’s caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis. A healthy vagina hosts thriving populations of Lactobacillus bacteria species, but when these “good” bacteria are crowded out by certain types of “bad” bacteria, the vaginal ecosystem can be shifted, causing BV.

There is a lot of confusion about BV. Is it a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? What are the symptoms? How can you avoid it?

All good questions. Let’s examine them one by one.

Is BV an STD?

The consensus seems to be that BV isn’t officially an STD, but even reliable sources have somewhat contradictory information. Planned Parenthood doesn’t list BV as an STD on their informational webpages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does include BV on their STD website, but also says that “BV is not considered an STD.”

On the other hand, the Office on Women’s Health says that “BV can … be caused by vaginal, oral, or anal sex” and that “you can get BV from male or female partners.” And there’s an entire chapter devoted to BV in the premier medical textbook on STDs, and its authors say that, while sexually inexperienced females can get BV, “the weight of evidence supports sexual transmission” of G. vaginalis, the bacteria species most famously implicated in BV infections.

The same webpage on which the CDC declared BV not to be an STD also says that it can be transferred between female sexual partners. Indeed, women who have sex with women have higher rates of BV. Since vaginal fluid could spread BV, partners can change condoms when a sex toy is passed from one to another, and use barriers like dental dams when engaging in cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus).

What about heterosexual transmission? Continue reading

STD Awareness: Why Should You Care About Oral Gonorrhea?

Image: CDC

An illustration of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. Image: CDC

When I say “gonorrhea,” you might think of genitals that feel as though they have been set ablaze, or perhaps a viscous fluid oozing from the urethra. But gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, can also set up camp in the pharynx after being transmitted into a mouth and down a throat when its new host gave oral sex to its old host. Indeed, performing oral sex on multiple partners has been found to increase risk for an oral gonorrhea infection (more properly called pharyngeal gonorrhea).

If you read our September 2012 article on gonorrhea of the throat, you might remember these fun facts: Oral gonorrhea goes away within three months, even without treatment! Plus, these infections rarely have symptoms. Why, then, should you care about a gonorrhea infection in your throat? You’re not likely to notice it’s there, and it’ll go away on its own anyway.


Many researchers believe that the throat is an incubator for antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.


Well, aside from the possibility of transmitting a gonorrhea infection from your throat to someone’s genitals, there’s one other thing to care about: the development of antibiotic resistance.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. If gonorrhea evolves complete resistance to the drugs we use to cure it, we could find ourselves sent back in time, to the days when gonorrhea was untreatable — and responsible for infertility, blindness, and chronic pain. While scientists figure out how to address this emerging threat, you can do your part by avoiding gonorrhea in the first place — and that includes using condoms and dental dams to prevent oral gonorrhea infections.

So, while it sounds like a blessing that gonorrhea of the throat rarely has symptoms, there’s actually a drawback: An oral gonorrhea infection probably won’t be effectively treated — or even identified in the first place. And these hidden throat infections are likely to be helping to drive the development of antibiotic resistance. Continue reading