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What Is It?

Pelvic inflammatory disease is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. It is the most common serious infection among young women, with approximately 1 million new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. It usually affects sexually active women during their childbearing years. About one in every seven women receives treatment for pelvic inflammatory disease at some point in her life.

Pelvic inflammatory disease is the most common preventable cause of infertility in the United States. The infection can cause tissue inside the fallopian tubes to become scarred, which can damage the fallopian tubes or block them completely. The more often a woman gets this infection, the greater her risk of becoming infertile. The risk doubles with each bout of the disease.

Pelvic inflammatory disease is a major cause of hospitalization in young women. It leads to thousands of surgeries due to complications from the infection. Researchers believe most cases develop from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), infections that are spread through sexual contact. The two diseases most likely to lead to pelvic inflammatory disease are gonorrhea and chlamydia. Without treatment, the same bacteria that cause these diseases also can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.

Pelvic inflammatory disease usually develops in a two-stage process. First, the organisms infect the cervix (opening of the uterus). Then, in about 10% of women, the bacteria migrate up to the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. Less commonly, pelvic inflammatory disease can develop if bacteria get into the upper portions of the reproductive tract after childbirth, after inserting an intrauterine device (IUD) or after an induced abortion. All of these procedures carry some risk of infection, especially if the patient also has an STD.

Pelvic inflammatory disease is most common in women younger than age 25 who have more than one sex partner. Women who have had an STD have a higher risk of getting pelvic inflammatory disease, as do those who have already had a previous pelvic infection. Any woman whose sex partner has more than one sex partner is also at increased risk of pelvic infection.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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