Risks Associated With Untreated STDs

5 Reasons Why You Should Get Screened Today

It can be difficult to motivate people to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In some cases, people are scared to get tested because of how it may affect their relationship. Others are terrified of being diagnosed with HIV or other incurable STDs. Others still assume that they are "clear" because they have no symptoms.

A medical technician preparing a sample for hepatitis testing
Westend61 / Getty Images

All of these responses, while understandable, place you at greater harm than you might think. By avoiding recommended STD tests, you could find yourself dealing with serious complications or placing others' health at risk.

Here are just some of the short- and long-term consequences of avoiding STD testing:

Infecting Others

Clearly, having an untreated STD increases your risk of passing the infection to others. Even if you use condoms and practice safer sex, the risk of transmission remains significant. This is especially true with STDs like human papillomavirus (HPV) for which condoms only provide partial protection.

Even if an STD cannot be cured (such as with HPV, HIV, genital herpes, and hepatitis B), knowing your status may afford you the treatment and insights to reduce your infectivity.

For example, taking antiretroviral drugs not only prevents HIV from causing long-term harm but reduces the risk of transmission to zero if the virus is fully suppressed, according to the landmark PARTNER1 and PARTNER2 studies.

Becoming Infertile

If left untreated, curable STDs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in women and infertility in both women and men. Complications of syphilis can also cause the obstruction of the epididymis, increasing the risk of male infertility.

To preserve your chances of pregnancy, it is important to get tested for STDs if you are in a relationship or plan to have a family one day.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) currently recommends the screening of chlamydia and gonorrhea in all sexually active women age 24 and younger as well as older women at an increased risk of infection.

The USPSTF further endorses the screening of syphilis in sexually active women and men at risk of infection as well as all pregnant women.

Endangering a Pregnancy

There are numerous STDs that pose a risk not only to your pregnancy but to your unborn baby as well. Not only might an infection reduce the viability of a pregnancy, but it can also transmit the infection to your baby either before or during birth.

Pregnant women with untreated chlamydia, for example, are at a greater risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth. Gonorrhea can be passed from mother to child during vaginal delivery, causing a potentially severe eye infection. Worse yet, syphilis and herpes can be potentially fatal in a newborn. By knowing your STD status, you can reduce harm to both yourself and your baby.

This is especially true with HIV, in which the use of antiretroviral drugs has reduced the risk of transmission to one out of every 100,000 births in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Getting or Passing HIV

Infection with certain STDs, particularly ulcerative diseases such as herpes and syphilis, can increase your susceptibility to HIV infection. The open sores caused by these viruses offer the HIV virus an easy entry route into the body. For women and gay men, in whom the ulcers may be internal, the risk is especially high.

But it is not only ulcerative STDs that pose a risk. Every STD will invariably trigger an inflammatory response in the genitals. When this occurs, immune cells will flood the tissues to fight the infection.

Many of the front-line cells (macrophages and dendritic cells especially) will "capture" HIV and present them to CD4 T-cells for neutralization. Ironically, CD4 T-cells are the prime target for an HIV infection. As such, the body's own immune response helps facilitate the infection.

Moreover, having HIV along with another STD increases the amount of viral shedding in the genitals. What this means is that HIV will increase in numbers in response to inflammation spurred by an STD. The greater the number of "shed" virus, the greater the risk of transmission.

It is only by getting tested and starting HIV therapy that you can suppress the virus and prevent transmission. If you don't have HIV, getting treatment for any other STDs that you have reduces your risk of getting an HIV infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and USPSTF recommend the once-off testing of all Americans ages 15 to 65 as part of a routine doctor's visit. Those at higher risk may require annual testing.

Developing Complications

If left untreated, STDs can cause severe health problems. Some of these may progress undetected over the course of decades, often without any outward signs. It is only years later that severe and sometimes catastrophic complications can develop.

Examples include:

  • Chlamydia: PID, infertility
  • Gonorrhea: PID, infertility
  • Genital herpes: Bladder problems, meningitis
  • Hepatitis B: Cirrhosis, liver cancer
  • HIV: Reduced life expectancy, opportunistic infections
  • HPV: Cervical cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer
  • Syphilis: Blindness, loss of motor skills, dementia, and damage to the heart, brain, eyes, kidneys, and bones

A Word From Verywell

STD screening may be scary, and the results can be disruptive to your lifestyle—but the long-term benefits can't help but outweigh the risks. Early diagnosis provides you the means to access treatment before complications occur or other people become infected.

If entering a new relationship, suggest that you and your partner get tested at the same time. This way, you can both make informed choices and not "blame" the other for actions not taken.

If you are in a long-standing relationship and think you have an STD, you may be forced to reveal how you got infected if the test comes back positive. It may have nothing to do with infidelity, but the conversation can be difficult nonetheless.

Getting tested at least lets you know where you stand. Living in ignorance can hurt others around you, including those you care about most.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact sheet for public health personnel. Updated March 5, 2013.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STDs & infertility. Updated June 22, 2021.

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  5. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Syphilis Infection in nonpregnant adults and adolescents: screening. Updated June 7, 2016.

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  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diseases & related conditions. Updated November 4, 2016.