Mycoplasma and ureaplasma are types of bacteria that can be transferred from one person to another through sexual contact, however they are not classed as sexually transmitted infections.
There is limited knowledge surrounding these type of infections and any long term damage they may cause.
What are mycoplasma and ureaplasma?
Mycoplasma and ureaplasma are:
One of the smallest free-living organisms
Difficult to identify due to their size
Characterised by a lack of cell walls found in other types of bacteria
It is thought that there are many types of mycoplasma bacteria, the majority of which are harmless and do not cause health problems. It is currently understood that only four species cause human infections, including:
Mycoplasma Pneumoniae - Also known as atypical or ‘walking’ pneumonia, it can be contracted by breathing in infected respiratory fluid. The infection can cause symptoms such as wheezing, sore throat, cough, headache and fatigue. Most cases are mild and do not lead to pneumonia.
Mycoplasma Genitalium - First identified in the 1980s, this particular infection can cause men to experience non-gonococcal or non-chlamydial urethritis, and women to experience cervicitis. However, it is more commonly asymptomatic. A piece of research has suggested a link between Mycoplasma Genitalium infections and female infertility, as the bacteria has been identified more frequently in the reproductive organs of women with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). However, in order for a direct link to be confirmed more research into the area is required.
Mycoplasma Hominis - A mycoplasma hominis infection may cause males who are infected to notice discharge from the urethra or experience pain when urinating. There is some evidence that suggests it may be connected to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) which can be a cause of ectopic pregnancy. It may also be linked to cases of bacterial vaginosis, which in turn is linked to premature births or miscarriage; however not enough research has been carried out in this area to draw definitive conclusions.
Ureaplasma Urealyticum - Ureaplasma urealyticum is a type of urinary tract infection which can be contracted through sexual contact. It is possible for pregnant women to pass the infection onto their baby in the womb or during childbirth. In most cases the infection does not cause problems but it has been linked to preterm labour, low birth weight, pneumonia and septicemia.
What causes a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection?
Mycoplasma and ureaplasma bacteria can live in the urogenital or respiratory tracts of healthy adults and not cause any harm. Bacteria cells live on our skin and in our body unnoticed but they can cause problems when the natural balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria is upset.
Mycoplasma and ureaplasma infections can be transferred during sexual intercourse but they are not classed as sexually transmitted infections. The bacteria live in the mucosa found in the urogenital tract.
You can contract a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection through direct contact with infected cells: whether this be genital-to-genital or mouth-to-genital. Studies have also found that the infection can be passed from mother to baby in utero or during vaginal childbirth.
Those who are immunocompromised are considered to be at higher risk from infection and may require a different course of treatment if an infection is identified.
Mycoplasma pneumoniae is found in the mucus of the respiratory tract and can be transferred when infected droplets are breathed in.
What are the symptoms of a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection?
Mycoplasma and Ureaplasma infections are largely asymptomatic, therefore those who are infected may not notice any symptoms.
Symptoms that may be linked to an infection include the following:
A burning sensation when urinating
Pain in the stomach area
A stinging sensation when passing urine
Discharge from the penis
How common are mycoplasma or ureaplasma infections?
Mycoplasma and ureaplasma bacteria are thought to be commonly found in the lower urogenital tracts of sexually active males and females, however they do not always cause infection.
A recent study has suggested that over one per cent of the population could be infected.
How do I know if I have a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection?
These infections can be identified via a urine sample or swab from the vagina or penis.
What is the treatment for a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection?
Cases of mycoplasma and ureaplasma infections can be treated with a course of antibiotics.
Many antibiotics work through a process called peptidoglycan synthesis, a process which refers to the breaking down of bacteria cell walls. However, mycoplasma and ureaplasma cells do not have the walls that are targeted during this process, and so they are resistant to these type of antibiotics.
Consequently, other types of antibiotics will be used to treat mycoplasma and ureaplasma infections. Your doctor will decide the best course of antibiotics depending on the type of infection present.
Why are mycoplasma and ureaplasma not classed as STIs?
The pathogenicity (or, the ability of these bacteria to cause disease) is yet to be confirmed. Due to a lack of conclusive evidence it is not known whether mycoplasma or ureaplasma infections cause long term health problems.
Confirmed sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can damage the reproductive organs, rendering the area susceptible to further infections in the future. The long term effects of mycoplasma and ureaplasma infections are largely unknown.
How can I prevent a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection?
One method to tackle the spread of this type of infection is to practice safe sex by wearing either a male or female condom.
Maintaining good sexual health can help to reduce the chances of long term damage or repeat infections. If you are sexually active it is best practice to regularly schedule STI screening. Screening is important because numerous STIs are asymptomatic so without being tested you would not know if you are living with the disease; and regular STI testing allows for infections to be picked up quickly so that treatment can be administered in a timely manner.
However, if you have unprotected sex (and are not in a monogamous relationship) or if you think you have come into contact with an STI, you should get tested as soon as possible.
If you are concerned that you have a mycoplasma or ureaplasma infection you should speak to your doctor.