Risks Associated With Untreated STIs

5 Reasons Why You Should Get Screened Today

It can be difficult to motivate people to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also referred to as sexually transmitted diseases, or 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 human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other incurable STIs. Still others assume that they are "clean" 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 STI 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 STI testing.

Infecting Others

Clearly, having an untreated STI 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 STIs like human papillomavirus (HPV) for which condoms only provide partial protection.

Even if an STI cannot be cured—as is the case with HPV, HIV, genital herpes, and hepatitis B—knowing your status can get you the treatment you need and the information necessary to prevent you from passing the infection on to others.

For example, taking antiretroviral drugs not only prevents HIV from causing long-term harm, but it 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 STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in people assigned female at birth, and infertility in both males and females. 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 STIs 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 for chlamydia and gonorrhea in all sexually active females age 24 and younger, as well as older females at an increased risk of infection.

The USPSTF further endorses screening for syphilis in all adolescents and adults at increased risk of infection, as well as all pregnant people.

Endangering a Pregnancy

There are numerous STIs that pose a risk to the fetus and the pregnancy overall. Not only might an infection prevent you from carrying to term, but it can also transmit the infection either before or during birth of your child.

Pregnant people with untreated chlamydia, for example, are at a greater risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth. Gonorrhea can be passed from parent to child during vaginal delivery, causing a potentially severe eye infection. Syphilis and herpes can be potentially fatal in a newborn.

By knowing your STI status, you can reduce harm to both yourself and the developing fetus.

With HIV, the use of antiretroviral drugs has reduced the risk of transmission to 1 out of every 100,000 births in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Getting or Passing HIV

Infection with certain STIs, particularly ulcerative diseases (those in which you develop open sores) such as herpes and syphilis, can increase your susceptibility to HIV infection. The open sores caused by these viruses give the HIV virus easy entry into the body. For those who have vaginal or anal sex, in whom the ulcers may be internal, the risk is especially high.

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

In the case of CD4 T cells in HIV, the body's own immune response, which should be fighting the infection, actually may make it easier for the infection to prosper.

Moreover, having HIV along with another STI may increase the amount of viral shedding in the genitals. What this means is the HIV viral load—the amount of virus found in your body—may increase in response to inflammation spurred by an STI. The greater the amount the virus has shed, the greater the risk of transmission.

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

The CDC recommends testing of all Americans ages 13–64 at least once as part of a routine doctor's visit. For gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men, at a minimum CDC recommends annual screening.

Developing Complications

If left untreated, STIs can cause severe health problems. Over time, severe and sometimes life-altering complications can develop. Some of these may progress undetected over the course of years, often without any outward signs.

Examples include:

  • Chlamydia: PID, infertility
  • Genital herpes: Bladder problems, meningitis
  • Gonorrhea: PID, infertility
  • 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

Early diagnosis of STIs will help you get treatment before complications occur or other people become infected.

If entering into a new relationship, consider suggesting that you and your partner get tested at the same time. This way, you can both make informed choices.

If you are in a long-standing relationship and think you have an STI, 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. Not knowing can hurt those around you, including people you care about most.

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.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STDs & infertility.

  3. Brookings C, Goldmeier D, Sadeghi-Nejad H. Sexually transmitted infections and sexual function in relation to male fertilityKorean J Urol. 2013;54(3):149–156. doi:10.4111/kju.2013.54.3.149

  4. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Final recommendation statement. Chlamydia and gonorrhea: screening.

  5. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Syphilis Infection in nonpregnant adults and adolescents: screening.

  6. American Pregnancy Association. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STDs and HIV – CDC Fact Sheet.

  8. Passmore JA, Jaspan HB, Masson L. Genital inflammation, immune activation and risk of sexual HIV acquisitionCurr Opin HIV AIDS. 2016;11(2):156–162. doi:10.1097/COH.0000000000000232

  9. Centers for Disease Control. Screening in Clinical Settings.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diseases & related conditions.

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.