What are the symptoms of STDs in women?
If you’re sexually active, there’s some risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or sexually transmitted disease (STD). Knowing how to recognize different types of infections may help you prevent or manage the issue. We’ll discuss the signs and symptoms of some of the more common STIs, possible causes or risk factors, some preventative measures, and what to do if you’re diagnosed with an STI.
What is an STI?
An STI is a sexually transmitted infection, which can develop into a sexually transmitted disease or STD. You can get an STI by having unprotected sexual contact with somebody who has an STI, whether or not they have symptoms. Genital touching without having sex, vaginal sex, oral sex, and anal sex can increase your risk of contracting an STI. A pregnant or breastfeeding person can also pass an STI on to their baby.
Health conditions, such as infertility and chronic pelvic pain, can be caused by STIs. Why are women affected differently than men? Some of the differences can be due to anatomy. Visible symptoms like genital ulcers may be harder to spot for women. The vagina also has a moist environment in which it’s more likely for bacteria to grow and spread.
Signs and symptoms of STDs
It can be difficult to recognize an STI because symptoms may be minor or nonexistent. When there are symptoms, an STI can be mistaken for a yeast infection or urinary tract infection because they have similar symptoms. Getting tested may help prevent infections and getting treatment early is always recommended. STIs symptoms can present in many ways. Here’s what you need to know about the most common STDs in women:
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
The human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is one of the most common STIs. There are over 40 types of HPV. You can get HPV through vaginal, oral, or anal sex in addition to skin-to-skin contact. Your body can heal from some forms of HPV on its own, but some types can cause further health problems, including genital warts or cancer.
HPV can be a precursor to cervical cancer, and starting at the age of 30 people with vaginas are routinely tested for HPV with their pap smear screenings for prevention. There is also now an HPV vaccine that is routinely recommended in an effort to decrease this risk. Traditionally, this vaccine was given to those in the 11 to 12-year-old range, but now can be given to adults as well. Talk to your primary care provider if this is something you are interested in.
Chlamydia is usually spread by vaginal or anal sex but can also be spread through oral sex. Symptoms, if you experience any, include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, lower abdominal pain, and discomfort (pain or burning sensation) when you have to pee or when you’re having sex. Treat chlamydia with antibiotics, and make sure that any partners you had in the last 3 months are also treated to prevent re-infection. Make sure the infection is gone by retesting after 1-3 months.
You can easily catch genital herpes through skin-to-skin contact. Unfortunately, once you contract genital herpes you will always have it, though symptoms or “outbreaks” can be managed with medications. Symptoms can include painful blisters around the vagina or anus. Sometimes the blisters are inside where they can’t be seen or felt.
Gonorrhea has similar symptoms to chlamydia. These include discomfort when you pee or have a bowel movement, anal itching, abnormal vaginal bleeding, or abnormal vaginal discharge. Gonorrhea and chlamydia often occur at the same time. However, many women don’t have any symptoms. In some cases, symptoms don’t appear for months. You can treat gonorrhea with antibiotics, and as with chlamydia, it is important that your sexual partners get treated as well.
Hepatitis A, B, and C are all contagious viral infections. Each type affects your liver to varying degrees. Not everybody experiences hepatitis symptoms. Possible symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, itching, abdominal pain, dark urine, and jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes).
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
Testing is the only way to diagnose HIV. This virus interferes with your body’s ability to fight off other diseases. Early symptoms often are mistakenly attributed to other viruses. These symptoms include headache, fatigue, swollen lymph glands, fever, rash, and sore throat. The early stages of HIV are a period in which you’re highly contagious. As HIV continues to destroy immune cells, you become more vulnerable to other types of infection. Symptoms may continue to worsen in later stages.
What happens if you don't treat an STI?
STIs can be contracted through sexual activity. Possible causes include skin-to-skin contact, vaginal sex, oral sex, and anal sex. If certain STIs are left untreated, it can lead to:
- Infection in other parts of your body
- Organ damage
- Pregnancy problems (infertility, complications while pregnant, health problems for the baby)
- Certain cancers (cervical cancer)
STD prevention and treatment
You can take precautions and practice safe sex to help prevent STIs. There are vaccinations to protect you from hepatitis B and HPV. Using condoms prevents skin-to-skin contact and helps prevent STDs, unlike other forms of birth control. Get tested regularly to ensure that you’re healthy and talk to your partners about their STI history. By getting regular screenings, you can help to prevent STDs and any health problems they may cause. The last thing to remember is that douching can disrupt your vaginal microbiome by removing the normal bacteria that can protect you from infections.