Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are also known as sexually transmitted infections. They’re passed through vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact. Female symptoms of an STD can include:
- vaginal itching
- unusual discharge
Many STDs display no symptoms at all. Left untreated, STDs can lead to fertility problems and an increased risk of cervical cancer. These risks make it even more important to practice safe sex.
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 50 percent of new chlamydia and gonorrhea cases occur in women between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The CDC estimates that 20 million new STDs will occur every year in the United States alone. Every year worldwide, there are approximately 357 million new infections of syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis.
Because many women don’t show symptoms with some STDs, they may not know they need treatment. It’s estimated that as many as one in five Americans has genital herpes, but up to 90 percent are unaware that they have it.
According to the CDC, untreated STDs cause infertility in at least 24,000 women yearly in the United States. They can also increase the likelihood of complications such as abdominal pain or ectopic pregnancy.
Some of the most common STDs in women include:
HPV is the most common STD in women. It’s also the main cause of cervical cancer. A vaccine is available that can help prevent against certain strains of HPV. For more information, read about the pros and cons of the HPV vaccine.
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are common bacterial STDs. In fact, chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD in the Unites States. Most gynecologists automatically check for both infections during normal checkups.
Genital herpes is also common, with about one out of six people having it.
Women should be aware of possible STD symptoms so that they can seek medical advice if necessary. Some of the most common symptoms are described below.
Changes in urination: An STD can be indicated by pain or a burning sensation during urination, the need to pee more frequently, or the presence of blood in the urine.
Abnormal vaginal discharge: The look and consistency of vaginal discharge changes continually through a woman’s cycle. Thick, white discharge can be a sign of a yeast infection. When discharge is yellow or green, it might indicate gonorrhea or trichomoniasis.
Itching in the vaginal area: Itching is a non-specific symptom that may or may not be related to an STD. Sex-related causes for vaginal itching may include:
- allergic reaction to a latex condom
- yeast infection
- pubic lice or scabies
- genital warts
- the early phases of most bacterial and viral STDs
Pain during sex: This symptom is often overlooked, but abdominal or pelvic pain can be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is most commonly caused by an advanced stage of infection with chlamydia or gonorrhea.
Abnormal bleeding: Abnormal bleeding is another possible sign of PID or other reproductive problems from an STD.
Rashes or sores: Sores or tiny pimples around the mouth or vagina can indicate herpes, HPV, or syphilis.
Everyone should take certain preventive measures to avoid getting or transmitting STDs.
Get tested regularly
Typically, women should get a Pap smear every three to five years. It’s also important to ask if you should be tested for any other STDs and whether the HPV vaccination is suggested. According to the Office on Women’s Health, you should talk to your doctor about STD testing if you’re sexually active.
Whether it’s for vaginal, anal, or oral sex, a condom can help protect both you and your partner. Female condoms and dental dams can provide a certain level of protection. Opinions are still divided as to whether they’re as effective as the male condom in preventing transmission of STDs.
Spermicides, the birth control pill, and other forms of contraception may protect against pregnancy, but they don’t protect against STDs.
Honest communication with both your doctor and your partner about sexual history is essential.
STDs and pregnancy
Women can get STDs while pregnant. Because many infections don’t show symptoms, some women don’t realize they’re infected. For this reason, doctors may run a full STD panel at the beginning of a pregnancy.
These infections can be life-threatening to you and your baby. You can pass STDs on to your baby during pregnancy or birth, so early treatment is essential. All bacterial STDs can be treated safely with antibiotics during pregnancy. Viral infections can be treated with antivirals to prevent the likelihood of passing the infection to your child.
Some women will develop STDs as a direct result of a sexual assault. When women see a healthcare provider immediately following an assault, the healthcare provider tries to capture DNA and evaluate for injuries. During this process, they check for potential STD infection. If some time has passed since a sexual assault, you should still seek medical care. Your doctor or another healthcare provider can discuss possibly reporting the event, along with health-related concerns.
Depending on the person and their individual risk factors and medical history, the healthcare provider may prescribe preventative treatment, including:
- a hepatitis vaccine
- an HPV vaccine
- HIV antiviral medication
Following up with a healthcare provider at the recommended time is important to ensure that the medications were effective and that no infections need to be treated.
Here are a few things you should do after being diagnosed with an STD:
- Start any treatment your doctor prescribes for you immediately.
- Contact your partner(s) and let them know that they need to get tested and treated, too.
- Abstain from sex until your infection is either cured or until your doctor gives approval. In the case of bacterial infections, you should wait until the medications have cured you and your partner.
- For viral infections, wait long enough for your partner to be on antiviral medications, if necessary to reduce the risk of infecting them. Your doctor will be able to give you the correct time frame.