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What is pelvic inflammatory disease?

 A woman plays with her dog on the living room rug

Pelvic inflammatory disease is a severe infection of the female reproductive system. Without treatment, it can threaten fertility and life.

Chlamydia and gonorrhea by themselves should be enough to make anyone think twice about risky sexual behavior. But for women, these sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can lead to far more serious problems.

Both chlamydia and gonorrhea can progress to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a serious infection of the female reproductive system. Other germs also can lead to PID, but chlamydia and gonorrhea are the most common causes.

PID can develop if the original, untreated infection makes its way through the cervix and into the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries, says the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA).

Symptoms and ill effects

PID can develop days or months after you get an STI. Though many women don't have symptoms, when symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • Dull pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen.
  • Bleeding between menstrual periods.
  • An increase or change in vaginal discharge.
  • Pain during intercourse.
  • Nausea.
  • Fever and chills.

If detected early, PID can be cured with antibiotics, according to the Office on Women's Health. Left untreated, PID can scar organs throughout the reproductive system, making future pregnancy difficult or impossible.

Scarring in the fallopian tubes can also increase the risk of an ectopic (tubal) pregnancy. Most ectopic pregnancies occur when a fertilized egg gets stuck in the fallopian tube and can't make it to the uterus. It's life-threatening for the woman and always requires surgical removal of the embryo.

Preventing PID

It's possible to get PID without having an STI. But STIs are the most common cause. The only certain way to avoid STIs is to abstain from sex. People who do have sex can reduce their risk of STIs by:

  • Having intercourse with only one partner, who has no STIs and who only has sex with you.
  • Using condoms.
  • Limiting your number of sexual partners.
  • Discussing STIs and testing before you have sex with a new partner.

If you are sexually active and are under 25, get tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea yearly. Also get tested if you are 25 or older and have any risk factors, including having unprotected sex, having a new partner or thinking you may have been exposed to an STI.

Regular testing can help ensure early treatment if you ever do get an STI. Testing can also catch PID early, before it permanently damages your reproductive system.

If you have an STI or PID, make sure your partner gets treated too. Otherwise, you may become re-infected.

What men can do

Although PID is a woman's disease, men can help prevent it. That's because men are more likely to have symptoms from chlamydia or gonorrhea than women, according to ASHA. Symptoms for men include:

  • A puslike discharge from the penis.
  • Burning during urination.

Men who have these symptoms should see a doctor right away. A man who has an STI should tell his partner immediately. The sooner a woman knows she's been exposed to an STI, the sooner she can get tested and treated, lowering her risk for permanent harm.

Reviewed 11/7/2023

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