STIs and Systemic Infections

A systemic infection earns its name by being spread throughout the systems of the body. It can be compared to a local infection, in which the pathogen or symptoms are localized to one area. Such infections are sometimes known as local infections. Systemic infections are not necessarily more severe than local infections. They just affect a larger proportion of the body. For example, the common cold is a systemic infection. However, it is usually not particularly serious. In contrast, a badly infected cut is serious but not necessarily systemic. (It could become systemic if the infection spread. A systemic bacterial infection is sometimes called sepsis.)

Not all systemic diseases are infectious. For example, diabetes causes symptoms and changes throughout the body. It is an autoimmune disorder that is not caused by an infection, and it is a systemic disease. Most STIs are localized to the genitals. However, some of them can become systemic.

A systemic infection is often confused with septicemia, but the two conditions are not the same. Septicemia refers to the presence of bacteria in the circulating blood. It can also refer to the presence of bacterial toxins in the blood. However, the circulatory system is just one system of the body. A blood infection is not necessarily affecting multiple systems.

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STIs and Systemic Infections

Several STIs are either always systemic infections or can become systemic infections.

HIV, for example, is a condition of the whole body. The virus attacks the immune system. If untreated, it can lead to immunodeficiency. This, in turn, can make people susceptible to a large number of other infectious diseases. Fortunately, highly effective treatments are now available for HIV. They can both keep the virus in check and reduce the transmission of HIV to others.

Gonorrhea, on the other hand, is usually a local bacterial infection. However, it can become disseminated under certain circumstances. Disseminated gonorrhea is a systemic infection. As a systemic infection, disseminated gonorrhea causes different symptoms than localized gonorrhea. For example, it can cause a type of infectious arthritis. Local infections with gonorrhea are more likely to cause genital discharge or a sore throat. Those symptoms depend on the location of the infection. Many local gonorrhea infections cause no symptoms at all.

Chlamydia may seem like an obvious candidate to cause systemic infections. It can ascend to the uterus in women and cause scarring. In men, it can also cause scarring of the male reproductive tract and subsequent infertility. It affects a variety of sites, including the eyes and the rectum. However, the specific type of chlamydia that causes genital infections is not generally thought to cause systemic infections. Other chlamydia types, however, may do so. For example, the systemic disease lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV) is caused by a type of chlamydia that spreads throughout the body. Oddly, LGV infections behave more like syphilis than chlamydia. This is despite the fact that the bacteria that causes them is a type of chlamydia. 

Syphilis moves through various stages. Early syphilis starts out looking like a local infection. It causes a few small sores. However, syphilis is fundamentally a systemic infection, spread throughout the body. That's particularly true for chronic syphilis. If left untreated, it will eventually affect numerous systems in the body. For example, latent syphilis can eventually lead to neurological problems. Systemic syphilis infections can even lead to death. However, death from syphilis is rare in adults, due to the availability of effective treatments. Serious syphilis infections are much more of a concern in infants. Undetected syphilis during pregnancy can be devastating because of the risk to the fetus. 

7 Sources
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.