Douching Increases STD Risk

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Updated: 3/19 2:54 pm

Oct. 27, 2008 (Washington, D.C.) -- Don't douche.

That's the message from researchers who found that teens who report douching regularly are significantly more likely to subsequently develop a sexually transmitted disease (STD) than those who say they never douche.

"Vaginal douching is not a healthy behavior. It should be viewed as a harmful behavior, like overeating or being sedentary," says Sten Vermund, MD, PhD, of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Vermund presented the findings here at a joint meeting of the American Society for Microbiology and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Douching May be Harmful to Your Health

Many women view douching -- rinsing out the vagina with water or a homemade or commercial solution -- as a prophylactic measure that can cleanse the vagina and prevent odors, Vermund says. Others have a mistaken belief that it can prevent pregnancy or STDs, he says.

In fact, studies have linked douching to pelvic inflammatory disease, reduced fertility, ectopic pregnancy (where an embryo implants outside the womb), low birthweight babies, preterm delivery, and cervical cancer, Vermund tells WebMD.

Numerous studies also support a strong relationship between douching and sexually transmitted infections, he says. But the studies do not answer the question of whether douching causes STDs or whether STDs cause women to douche, he says.

For the new study, Vermund and colleagues followed 368 teens for three years. Their average age was 17, and about 75% were black. All were considered at high risk for acquiring an STD: Two-thirds were infected with HIV and three-fourths reported they had been sexually active in the three months prior to entering the study.

The teens were tested for four STDs -- chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and trichomoniasis  -- every six months. At every test, the women were asked about douching habits; nearly 14% of the women who participated reported douching, and 24% never reported douching.

Results showed that those who reported douching every time were 84% more likely to subsequently develop a sexually transmitted disease than those who said they never douched. Those who reported douching sometimes were 36% more likely to develop an STD than those who said they never douched, but the finding could have been due to chance.

How Douching May Wreak Havoc

Vermund says douches may be harmful because they disrupt the vaginal ecosystem, destroying good bacteria called lactobacilli that protect against infections.

Douching fluid may also carry STD-causing pathogens deeper into the female genital tract, says M. Lindsay Grayson, MD.

"Douching potentially raises the risk of sexually transmitted infections by flushing semen up the cervix. This is a question that needed to be studied further," he tells WebMD. Grayson is vice-chair of the committee that chose which studies to highlight at the meeting and an infectious diseases specialist at Austin Health in Melbourne, Australia.

Although researchers continue to study the harmful effects of douching, parents need to tell their daughters that the practice can hurt their health, Vermund says. "Research suggests that once women appreciate that douching is not hygienic, many will stop," he says.

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