The reproductive tract refers to the reproductive system or the genital system of both internal and external organs in males and females. It is responsible for the survival of species and procreation. In the normal functioning of these organs, sperm production takes place in the testes and one egg or ovum is released and sent to the fallopian tube during the ovulation period. Fertilization takes place through sexual intercourse and the fertilized egg is implanted in the endometrial lining of the uterus where the process of child bearing begins.
However, sometimes, men and women suffer from unexplained infertility which can be a result of an underlying medical condition or due to passive types of reproductive tract infection. In many instances, people don’t even know they have a reproductive tract infection as there may be no symptoms at all. If you are finding it difficult to conceive, there might be a chance of you having a reproductive tract infection.
What are reproductive tract infections?
Reproductive tract infections (RTI) are infections that occur in the reproductive tract of both species (i.e. male and female). Infections in the reproductive tract can cause serious complications to life as well as to fertility. While urinary and reproductive tract infections can affect male fertility, it is women who run a higher risk of infertility and complications with these infections. The most common causes of reproductive tract infections are poor hygiene, unprotected sex – that give rise to STD causing infertility, and in some cases, medical negligence. There are three types of reproductive tract infections:
- Endogenous infections
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Latrogenic infections
In the general functioning of the reproductive system, there is a normal production and balance of infectious organisms or bacteria that are asymptomatic or dormant in nature. When there is an overgrowth or imbalance of these organisms in the body, the infection is called endogenous infection. In simple words, endogenous infection happens when we are infected by our own bacteria.
The most common endogenous infection example is bacterial vaginosis. Although bacterial vaginosis (BV) can affect all women, leaving it untreated can pose possible challenges in fertility. Some of the common ways BV can decrease fertility are as follows:
- Scar tissues from the infection can cause a blockage in the fallopian tubes, which restrict the sperm from coming in contact with the egg.
- Increased inflammation in the organ can interfere in the process of reproduction.
- BV can cause potential damage to vaginal and sperm cells.
- Hindrance in the production of healthy mucus during ovulation period.
Sexually transmitted infections:
Infertility due to STDs are the most common causes of reproductive tract infections that are passed on from one infected person to a healthy person through sexual intercourse or genital contact. They are also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and can cause a lot of damage to the reproductive organs. The most common symptoms of an STD are as follows:
- Unusual discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pain during excretion
- Itching or burning sensation
- Rashes in the vagina or penis
- Unusual bleeding from the genitals
- Sores or blisters around the genitals or anus
Unfortunately, some STD causing infertility may be dormant and you may have mild to no symptoms at all. This means that people who have the infection without any symptoms may unintentionally pass on the infection sexually. Most of the sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia cause infertility and can even be passed on to your unborn child. Some of the common STD causing infertility are as follows:
- HIV: HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a sexually transmitted virus that affects the immune system of the body. This disables the body from fighting infections and diseases and also gives rise to other life-threatening complications. Since there is no cure for HIV as of now, there is a high risk of you passing on the virus to your unborn child. Although there is no direct connection between HIV and infertility, decreased energy, illness, stress and weight loss may potentially affect the normal functioning of the reproductive organ and cause infertility.
- PID: Pelvic inflammatory Disease (PID) is an infection that affects the female reproductive organ. In general, a man cannot get a pelvic inflammatory disease. However, he can pass on a sexually transmitted infection to a woman that can contribute to PID and STD causing infertility. In this case, both the female and her partner need to be treated for PID.
PID occurs when bacteria affect the vagina, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. According to research 1 out of 10 women can become infertile with PID. This happens due to inflammation and scar tissues that block the fallopian tubes. Furthermore, the condition can also cause ectopic pregnancy – a condition where the fertilized egg implants itself outside the uterus. Ectopic pregnancies may put the woman in life-threatening bleeding and requires immediate medical attention in most cases.
- Herpes: Herpes can occur in both males and females. Although herpes is not transmitted through sexual intercourse, skin to skin contact can contribute to the spreading of the virus. This condition causes blistering and sores in the vagina or the penis and which can cause infertility due to STDs. Furthermore, women with herpes are also prone to experiencing pain and bleeding during intercourse. The unborn child is also more likely to develop neonatal herpes, which could be fatal in severe cases. Although the condition is spread easily, women with herpes can deliver healthy babies through c-section birth.
- Syphilis: If left untreated, syphilis has the tendency to cause infertility in both males and females. Syphilis is caused by a bacteria through sexual contact and can result in sores in the mouth, rectum or genitals.It directly affects the epididymis in men which leads to male infertility. If a woman is infected with syphilis before or after pregnancy, it could result in miscarriage, stillbirth, or congenital syphilis.
While the initial stages of syphilis are treatable, the condition can go on to possess life-threatening complications to all systems of the body, not just the reproductive organs. This makes it one of the most serious types of reproductive tract infections. In severe cases, syphilis can cause infertility, neurological problems, heart valve diseases, inflammation of blood vessels, and many more complications.
- Gonorrhea and Chlamydia: Most cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia cause infertility and show mild to no symptoms in both males and females. In the early stages, it can be treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, the condition directly affects fertility. For both gonorrhea and chlamydia pregnancies, there is a high risk of stillborn babies and miscarriages. Gonorrhea also causes conjunctivitis in the baby. Furthermore, women with these conditions are more prone to inflammation and scarring of the fallopian tubes, which gives rise to PID. Once the woman is affected with PID, in most cases, fertility is also at stake.
Latrogenic infections are infections caused by medical procedures such as abortions, menstrual regulations or in childbirth. These infections usually occur due to poor sterilization of medical tools or due to medical negligence. They can also occur in cases of already existing upper reproductive tract infections being pushed into the lower reproductive tract.
Reproductive tract infections are mostly curable and do not pose any challenges infertility, provided they are treated early. If you or anyone you know, show any signs or symptoms of a reproductive tract infection, kindly consult a doctor at the earliest possible to avoid serious damage to organs and functions of the reproductive system. Dr. Banker is a renowned fertility specialist who specializes in infertility treatments in Ahmedabad. For more information on infertility, visit us on Banker IVF.