Why your sexual health matters

September is Sexual Health Awareness Month.

Your reproductive organs include your uterus (also called womb), fallopian tubes, ovaries and cervix. These organs need to be healthy if you’re planning having a baby or if you’re pregnant. One way to have good reproductive health is protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections.

What is a sexually transmitted infection?

A sexually transmitted infection (also called STI, sexually transmitted disease or STD) is an infection that you can get from having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral sex) or intimate physical contact with someone who is infected. Some examples of STIs include gonorrhea, chlamydia and hepatitis B.

What problems can STIs cause?

STIs can cause health problems and, if you’re pregnant, they can affect your baby’s health. Without treatment, STIs can lead to conditions like:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (also called PID). This is an infection of a woman’s reproductive organs, including the uterus. PID can make it hard for you to get pregnant. During pregnancy, it can lead to problems like ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is when an embryo (fertilized egg) grows in the wrong place outside the womb.
  • Premature birth. This is birth that happens too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born early are at risk for having health problems at birth and later in life.
  • Birth defects. These are health conditions that are present at birth. They change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works.
  • Miscarriage. This is the death of a baby in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Stillbirth. This is the death of a baby in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Having an STI can have serious effects on your baby, which may be seen at birth or may not be discovered until months or years later.

How can you protect yourself and your baby from STIs?

The best way to protect your baby from STIs is to protect yourself from STIs. If you have an STI, the best way to protect your baby is to get early and regular treatment during pregnancy.

Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk and your baby’s risk for infection:

  • Choose to not have sex. Sex includes vaginal, oral and anal sex.
  • Limit the number of sex partners you have. Have sex with only one person who doesn’t have other sex partners.
  • Use a condom every time you have sex. Condoms are barrier methods of birth control. Barrier methods help prevent pregnancy and STIs by blocking or killing your partner’s sperm. Male latex condoms work best to prevent STIs; other kinds of condoms don’t work as well. Other kinds of birth control, like the pill and implants, don’t protect you from STIs.
  • Get tested and treated. Early testing and treatment can help reduce the risk of passing an STI to your baby. Ask your partner to get tested and treated, too. Even if you get treated for an STI, you can get re-infected (get the infection again) if your partner is infected.
  • Go to all your prenatal care checkups, even if you’re feeling fine. You may have an STI and not know it. If you think you may have an STI, tell your provider so you can get tested and treated right away.
  • Get vaccinatedVaccinations can help protect you from some STIs, like hepatitis B and some types of human papillomavirus (also called HPV). Vaccinations are shots that contain a vaccine that helps make you immune to certain diseases. If you’re immune to a disease, you can’t get the disease.

To learn more about what you can do to protect yourself and your baby from STIs, visit marchofdimes.org .