What Is Pelvic Inflammatory Disease? An Expert Explains

Since high school (and sometimes even middle school), you learned about STDs, and how if you have premarital sex, you’ll definitely get them (and get pregnant. And die). Or maybe that’s because I grew up in the Bible Belt? But did you know that some STDs, if left untreated, can cause other diseases in your reproductive organs? A little issue called pelvic inflammatory disease is no fun, and can be caused by untreated STDs, among other things. But what is pelvic inflammatory disease, and does it affect fertility? If you’re already pregnant, can you get pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)?

According to Mayo Clinic, PID is an infection that affects your reproductive organs, and unfortunately, sometimes has no symptoms or signs. You can tell that you may have it if you have trouble getting pregnant, or if you “develop chronic pelvic pain.” When PID is symptomatic, Mayo Clinic noted you’ll have pain or bleeding during or after sex, pain in your lower abdomen, heavy vaginal discharge that has a strong and smelly odor, abnormal bleeding between periods, and a fever. Sometimes it will even be hard to pee.

However, “PID might cause only mild signs and symptoms or none at all. When severe, PID might cause fever, chills, severe lower abdominal or pelvic pain — especially during a pelvic exam — and bowel discomfort,” according to Mayo Clinic.

How do you get it? The most common causes are untreated STDs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, because they’re bacteria you get from having unprotected sex. You can also get it “any time the normal barrier created by the cervix is disturbed, e.g., after childbirth, miscarriage or abortion,” Mayo Clinic stated.

Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Romper that PID causes infertility because it causes “irreversible scarring of the fallopian tubes (the delicate pipes which transmit the egg to be fertilized by sperm) and damage to the ovaries. One terrible PID infection can cause permanent infertility and increase the risk of tubal (ectopic) pregnancies,” she says. “For this reason, it’s recommended that women 25 and younger be screened yearly and between sexual partners for chlamydia and gonorrhea."

If you’re pregnant, can you get PID? Ross says fortunately, PID is not commonly seen in pregnant women. However, “If chlamydia and gonorrhea during pregnancy goes untreated and undiagnosed, it can be very dangerous for the baby. Infections involving the fallopian tubes are typically seen during the first trimester. A pelvic abscess caused by PID can be seen on ultrasound anytime during the pregnancy and both types of PID-related infections have a higher incidence of miscarriage,” Ross warns.

Typically, your doctor will check for PID during your yearly gynecological exam — yet another reason why it’s so important you go to those yearly checkups. They can tell when they feel around in your cervix for any swelling or abnormalities. If you do get PID, it is totally treatable with antibiotics, Ross says, as long as you catch it early enough before there’s permanent damage. “Antibiotics treat the bacteria associated with PID, but cannot reverse the scarring and permanent damage involving the fallopian tubes,” Ross adds.

While it can be super serious, PID isn't necessarily that scary, unless it goes untreated for a long amount of time. And, luckily, it's easily treatable. If you have new partners, it's important to be checked out for chlamydia and gonorrhea as soon as you can, and before having sex with a new person. While you won't necessarily automatically get an STD (and get pregnant and die) if you have unprotected sex, it's still a good idea to make sure your partner has been tested — especially since there are no symptoms for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Be safe and have fun out there, kids.

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