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Can A Treated STD Come Back?

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Updated May 21, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Question: Can A Treated STD Come Back?
There are effective treatments available for a number of STDs. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis can all be treated and cured reasonably easily with antibiotics. However, having your STD treated is not a guarantee that it will never come back. There are several reasons why simply finding treatment for an STD isn't enough. You also have to be careful about your future behavior.
Answer:

You've gone to the doctor and, although she diagnosed you with an STD, she also gave you a prescription for antibiotics and told you that after taking them, you'd be cured. That sounds like a recipe for an STD-free future, right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, there are a number of ways that STD treatment can fail or an STD can come back after treatment.

  1. Taking Your Medication Incorrectly/Taking The Incorrect Medication
    If your doctor prescribes you antibiotics, it's incredibly important to take the whole prescription -- even if you feel better before you're done. Failing to finish your antibiotics might not only keep your STD from being cured, it might also make it far more difficult to treat your STD when your doctor tries to do so next time -- because of antibiotic resistance. This is a serious concern, particularly with certain infections. Antibiotic resistant gonorrhea has grown so common that it is starting to become a public health crisis.
     
    Another reason that treatment can fail is that you're taking the wrong medication -- either because your doctor prescribed the wrong drugs or because you found a way to acquire drugs on your own and chose the wrong ones. Not all STDs are caused by the same pathogens. Different illnesses require different treatments. That's why it's so important for your doctor to correctly identify what's causing your infection before she prescribes antibiotics... and why you can't just take any random antibiotic and hope that it's going to work.
     
  2. Forgetting to Make Sure Your Partner Gets Treated
    If you have a regular sexual partner, it's important to tell them about your infection so that they can get treatment too. Then, once you've both gotten treated, you have to wait until the treatment has had time to work before you once again start having sex -- or at least wait before you go back to having unprotected sex. If both of you don't get treated, or you don't wait for the treatment to work, you might just end up passing the STD back and forth between you indefinitely.
     
  3. Being Exposed to a New STD
    This is a big one. Being successfully treated for chlamydia, gonorrhea, or another STD does not mean that you can't get it again. In fact, many people become infected with STDs over and over again, because they continue to have unprotected sex with partners who have untreated STDs. That's why, if you've been treated for an STD and don't want to get another one, the best thing that you can do to protect yourself is to consistently practice safe sex in the future and always talk to new partners about risk before having sex.

The Take Home Message: Learn From Your Diagnosis

If you've been diagnosed with an STD, and you're wondering if it can come back after treatment, it's presumably because the experience was unpleasant and you don't want to go through it again. Fortunately, most of the STDs that are curable with antibiotics are also preventable by practicing safe sex. Using condoms, dental dams, and other barriers to make your sex life safer is a very effective way to prevent bacterial STDs. However, it's important to use them consistently, and not just for vaginal and anal intercourse. You also have to use them for oral sex.

That said, if you've made a mistake once, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater -- you can do better the next time. STDs aren't necessarily transmitted every time you have sex, so it's never too late to start doing things more safely.

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