Drug-resistant STIs mean ‘if you don’t wrap it up, you’re in trouble’

Not finishing your strep throat medication may have created a super breed of STIs that are resistant to antibiotics. Shaen Adey / Getty Images

Three common sexually transmitted infections chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. It’s causing health officials to sound the alarm as the STIs can cause infertility, serious illness and even death.

Canadian microbiologist Jason Tetro says doctors who dispense the wrong medications are partly to blame for what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls a “growing threat.” People who don’t finish their prescriptions and those who don’t get tested for STIs are also part of the problem.

When someone unknowingly has an STI and goes on strep throat or acne meds (which can also work on STIs), not completing the treatment can have unfortunate consequences.

“[The unfinished treatment] partially treats their unknown STI,” explains University of Toronto epidemiologist Dionne Gesink.
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“So what ends up happening is they’ve killed all the weak bugs and left all the resilient ones that are much harder to treat.”

Tetro adds that doctors who “just throw the hardest thing” at an infection from the start may also make it more untreatable — especially if the bugs aren’t all killed off.

READ MORE: The war on STIs has failed

Superbugs aren’t exactly anything new. But the WHO is especially concerned about these ones. It’s released new treatment guidelines which doctors are being asked to follow when prescribing drugs to treat them.

It’s important for patients not only to finish the antibiotics, Gesink stresses, but also to come back for what’s called a “test of cure” to make sure the treatment worked.

WATCH: Safe sex misconceptions — Here are things you should know about STIs

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Safe sex misconceptions: Here are things you should know about STIs

If left undiagnosed and untreated, these STIs can lead to all sorts of major problems.

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“[They] can result in serious complications and long-term health problems for women, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, and miscarriage,” the WHO warns.

“Untreated gonorrhoea and chlamydia can cause infertility in both men and women.”

All three can also triple a person’s risk of being infected with HIV. They can heighten the chances of stillbirth and newborn death, as well.

Of the three STIs, syphilis is the one that can be fatal. Chlamydia is the most common.

“Gonorrhea is most concerning because it’s becoming hardest to treat,” Gesink says.

Both chlamydia and gonorrhea have similar symptoms, which can include a weird discharge in both men and women. Sometimes there are no symptoms so you can only be sure through a urine test.

These STIs can be transmitted orally as well.

“Essentially you get the infection in your throat,” Gesink says. “With syphilis you can get the canker anywhere in your mouth.”

Gesink co-authored a paper this year that documented the rise of a new STI nobody’s testing for: Mycoplasma genitalium. Its symptoms are easily mistaken for gonorrhea or chlamydia. It’s as prevalent as the latter. And inordinately drug-resistant.

READ MORE: What you need to know about an increasingly common STI proliferating in Canada

Tetro says as much flack as older people get for not practicing safe sex, these STIs are also prevalent in teens.

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His advice? Just use a condom.

“If you don’t wrap it up, you’re in trouble.”

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