STDs in women: Here’s everything you need to know
Wondering whether STDs in women differ to STDs in males? Or which STD most commonly affects females? What about the symptoms? Here is everything you need to know.
STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) in women may be contracted via vaginal, oral or anal contact with another person. STDs are also known as STIs (sexually transmitted infections).
STDs can be bacterial, viral or parasitic, meaning that they may be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. STDs are most commonly contracted during unprotected sex (sex without a condom) with an infected partner, however, to understand your risk, it’s important to have an awareness around all of the different ways that you can get an STD.
STDs in women and men may be contracted if:
- You have unprotected sex with an infected partner.
- You come into contact with infected fluids including blood, semen or vaginal fluids.
- You come into contact with an infected sore or open wound, for example, mouth to genital contact.
- You use a needle that has been used by an infected person for recreational drug use or other purposes.
- You come into contact with infected blood or body parts, for example, through a blood transfusion or organ donation.
It is also possible for STDs to pass from mothers to babies during childbirth, this is known as a congenital STD.
Finding out that you have an STD can be a scary experience, but they are much more common than you think, in fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 20 million STD cases diagnosed in the United States each year, with over half of all cases diagnosed in the 15-24 year old age group.
The incubation period (length of time) it takes to experience symptoms of an STD will depend on the type of STD you have, oftentimes, an STD will be asymptomatic, which means you won’t experience any symptoms. That is why it is so important to regularly get tested and proactively manage your sexual health.
As mentioned, the symptoms of an STD can vary but some of the most common symptoms of STDs in females include:
- Pain in the affected area
- Lumps and bumps
- Changes in vaginal discharge
When it comes to understanding STDs in women, it’s important to know which types of STDs you may be at risk of contracting, as well as what you can do to lower your risk.
STDs in women: Which STDs can affect women?
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Herpes (1& 2)
Human papillomavirus (HPV) in women
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is so common that almost all sexually active people will contract at least one type of HPV during their lifetime if they do not get the HPV vaccine.
There are over 100 strains of HPV. HPV can either be classified as “low risk” or benign which means the virus will clear up on its own, or it can be classified as “high risk” which means the virus could lead to cell changes that increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. High risk strains of HPV need to be monitored on an on-going basis.
Incubation period: 1 month - 10 years depending on the strain of the virus.
Caused by: A virus -Human papillomavirus
Symptoms of human papillomavirus (HPV) in females may include:
- Irregular skin changes on the vagina, cervix or anus
- Warts which may appear as lumps or bumps on the vagina, cervix or anus
- Warts which may appear as lumps on the back of the throat
HPV is most commonly contracted through vaginal and/or anal sex. Most women will not experience symptoms associated with HPV, which is why it is so important to regularly attend cervical cancer screenings. Find out how often you should attend cervical screenings here.
Chlamydia in women
Chlamydia often doesn’t carry symptoms, which is why it is so important, if left untreated, it can cause fertility issues in women due to a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease or (PID).
Incubation period: 7-21 days
Caused by: A bacteria -Chlamydia trachomatis
Symptoms of chlamydia in females may include:
- Spotting (bleeding) between periods
- Pain in the abdomen
- Bleeding after sex
- Painful or frequent urination
- Pain during sex
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Chlamydia is most commonly contracted through vaginal and/or anal sex, however it can also be contracted through oral sex. Chlamydia may have a long-term impact on your sexual and reproductive health if it is not treated. If chlamydia is detected early, it can be easily treated with antibiotics.
Gonorrhea in women
Gonorrhea is the second most commonly reported notifiable STD in the world according to the World Health Organisation. Gonorrhea most common affects the urethra, rectum, and throat. In women, it may also affect the cervix. Babies can contract gonorrhea during childbirth if the mother is infected, it most commonly affects the baby’s eyes.
Incubation period: 1-14 days
Caused by: A bacteria -Neisseria gonorrhoeae, also known as gonococcus
Symptoms of gonorrhea in females:
- More frequent urination
- Pain in the lower abdomen
- Painful urination
- White, beige or green discharge from the vagina
- Heavier periods
- Spotting between periods
- A sore throat
Gonorrhea is most commonly contracted through vaginal, anal and/or oral sex. Like chlamydia, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), if the bacteria travels into the uterus and fallopian tubes, it may lead to scarring on the tubes which could lead to fertility issues or complications during pregnancy.
HIV in women
HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) is an autoimmune condition. HIV causes AIDS, a condition which interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections.
Latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showcases that 19% of the total number of people diagnosed with HIV in the United States in 2018 were women.
Incubation period: 14-28 days
Caused by: A virus - Human immunodeficiency virus
Symptoms of HIV in females may include:
- Vaginal infections, most commonly yeast and bacterial vaginosis
- Irregular periods
- Muscle aches or pains
- Sore throat and/or swollen glands
- Painful mouth sores
- Body rash
- Unexplained fatigue
- Muscle aches and pains
HIV is most commonly contracted through vaginal and anal sex. It may also be passed from mother to baby during childbirth. HIV can be managed with antiviral medications, however there is currently no cure for AIDS.
Herpes (1 & 2) in women
Herpes is a viral STD that can’t be cured, however it can be managed. Did you know that cold sores are a form of herpes?
HSV-1 causes cold sores and can be contracted through kissing and/or oral sex. HSV-I may also cause genital herpes if someone who has a cold sore performs oral sex on a partner.
HSV-2 causes genital herpes and can be contracted through vaginal, anal and/or oral sex.
According to the World Health Organization, An estimated 3.7 billion people under age 50 (67%) have HSV-1 infection globally and an estimated 491 million people aged 15-49 (13%) worldwide have HSV-2 infection.
Incubation period: 2-12 days.
Caused by: A virus - Herpes simplex virus (HSV)
Symptoms of herpes 1 & 2 in females may include:
- Small bumps on the vagina, anus or mouth
- Ulcers on the vagina or anus which make urination painful
- Scabs on the vagina or anus
- Ulcers on the eyes, buttocks, anus, cervix, mouth or urethra
- Burning, itching or pain at the point of sexual contact
- Pain in your lower back, buttocks and/or legs
There is no cure for herpes 1 or 2, and in many cases there may be no symptoms, so you could unknowingly pass the virus on to a sexual partner. This is why it is so important to attend sexual health screenings regularly, or take an at home STD test. If you have been diagnosed with herpes, it’s important to know that while the virus is most contagious when symptoms are present, you can still infect a partner during a period of time when you are not showcasing any symptoms.
Syphilis in women
Syphilis is an STD that can be broken into four stages; primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. The symptoms will depend on how early the condition is diagnosed.
The outcome of your syphilis diagnosis depends on how long you’ve had syphilis and at which stage it was diagnosed and/or treated.
Incubation period: 3 weeks - 20 years (the incubation period depends on the stage of the syphilis diagnosis)
Caused by: Abacteria - Treponema pallidum
Symptoms of syphilis in females depend on the stage and severity of the condition.
A sore, also called a chancre is the first sign of syphilis. A chancre is usually firm to touch, round and painless.
Primary syphilis is commonly caused by intimate skin-to-skin contact, specifically, contact with the chancre on the skin.
Usually a chancre is painless, and is not visible. During the primary stage, symptoms are rare, but if they do occur, you will likely locate a chancre.
Chancres generally take a few weeks to heal. If syphilis goes undiagnosed, and you develop secondary syphilis, you may experience a rash that covers your whole body, starting on the palms of your feet or on your hands.
Other symptoms may include headaches, fever, and/or lumps on the vagina.
Latent syphilis, which is sometimes referred to as the hidden stage of syphilis, describes the period of time in which there are no symptoms of the condition, this period occurs 12 months following the initial infection.
Tertiary syphilis often occurs in the years following infection. If the condition has not been diagnosed, it can affect the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints.
If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health complications, but if diagnosed, the treatment will involve a fast acting injection which can easily remedy the condition.
Trichomoniasis in women
3.7 million people have trichomoniasis in the United States, however only 30% of people will develop symptoms according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Incubation period: 5-28 days.
Caused by: A parasite - Trichomonas vaginalis
Symptoms of trichomoniasis in females may include:
- Itching and/or a burning sensation inside the vagina
- Redness inside the vagina
- Pain during sex
- Irregular vaginal discharge
- A fishy smell coming from the vagina
- Itching or irritation of the anus
- Unusual lumps or bumps around the genitals and/or anus
- Pain during sexual intercourse
Trichomoniasis is one of the most common diagnosed STDs in women, it is mainly contracted through vaginal sex with an infected partner, and affects females more commonly than men. If left untreated, trichomoniasis can increase a woman’s risk of contracting HIV. The treatment for trichomoniasis is a course of antibiotics.
Ureaplasma in women
Most women have bacteria in both their cervical and vaginal secretions without experiencing any symptoms or negative side effects, however a bacterial imbalance in the vagina can lead to ureaplasma.
While ureaplasma bacteria naturally occur in the body, and rarely cause symptoms, it can become unbalanced and cause symptoms if left undetected or untreated.
Incubation period: 7 days - several months
Caused by: A bacteria - Ureaplasma urealyticum and Ureaplasma parvum
Symptoms of ureaplasma in females may include:
- Irregular vaginal discharge
- Pain during urination and/or sex
- Irregular vaginal discharge
Ureaplasma is most commonly contracted through vaginal sexual contact with an infected partner. Typically a course of antibiotics will be prescribed to treat the condition.
Hepatitis in women
Hepatitis B (also known as hep B or HBV) belongs to a group of viruses that attack the liver.
Hepatitis B can be cntracted through unprotected sex, it may also be passed on via contaminated needles and from a pregnant woman to her baby during birth.
Incubation period: 60-150 days
Caused by: A virus - hepatitis b virus (HBV)
Symptoms of hepatitis b in females may include:
- Pain in the abdomen
- A change in appetite
- Darker urine
- Joint pain
- Fatigue or weakness
- Yellowing of the skin and/or eyes (jaundice)
Hepatitis B doesn’t always cause symptoms and can pass in a few months without treatment (acute infection). Those who go untreated with a lifelong infection, and without appropriate treatment and care may experience liver damage and even death.
The above facts are not here to scare you. If you are practicing safe sex and are attending regular sexual health screenings, you are proactively doing what you need to do to protect your sexual well-being.
If you are sexually active, you should get tested once a year. Sexual health screening should become part of your yearly health and well-being routine.
Besides your yearly sexual health screening, there are also some other instances in which you should get tested, which include:
- You have had unprotected sex
- You are planning on having a family
- Your partner has multiple sexual partners
- You have multiple sexual partners
- Your contraception has failed (the condom has broken or fallen off)
At this point, you may have never attended a sexual health screening, or you may not know how they work yet. Sexual health screenings are nothing to be scared of, and what’s more, now it’s possible to do a sexual health screening from home,the important thing to remember is that it’s not as scary as it seems!
Sexually transmitted diseases can be detected through blood, urine and swab tests.
If prevention methods have failed, early detection is the next best thing. There are a range of at home STD testing options which you can use to get answers from the comfort of your own home.
How to prevent getting and STD
Always make sure that your partner wears a condom
Always make sure that your partner wears a condom and equally important, ensure that you and/or your partner knows how to put it on correctly.
Speak openly with sexual partner(s)
You may be filled with dread at the thought of speaking about your sexual history with a new partner but it’s important to know that they are being safe when it comes to their sex life so you can stay safe while having fun.
Keep track of your sexual partner(s)
Keeping track of your sex life is important in monitoring your sexual health. Each time you have sex, make a note of it, if you notice signs and symptoms, you will be better able to retrace your steps.
Get screened at least once a year
Whether you’re having a little or a lot of sex, you need to ensure that you are getting screened on a yearly basis. Sexual health screening should be just as regular as going to your physician or dentist for a check up, and once you do get screened on a regular basis, you will have far better peace of mind and confidence in the fact that you have nothing to worry about.
Interested in giving at-home STD testing a try? Read: 6 Best At-Home STD Test Kits in 2020.
When should I get tested for an STD?
The average incubation period for an STD is 3 weeks but when you should get tested for an STD will depend on the type of STD you believe you have contracted. The incubation period as outlined in the above article refers to the length of time it takes for your body to produce antibodies/develop physical symptoms of an STD. This means that if you had unprotected sex on Monday, and take an STD test the following Tuesday, you could receive a false negative. This means that you are still at risk. Refer to the incubation periods in the above article as a guide, but ensure that you visit a health professional if you are concerned about symptoms or a sexual experience.
How do I get tested for an STD?
You can visit a health professional in a healthcare setting or take an at home STD test. The STD that you have, or think you have will determine the type of testing required. Some STDs involve a physical examination and a blood test, others will require a urine sample or a swab test. Your symptoms and/or whether your previous sexual partners are aware of an STD they could be carrying will help to determine the type of testing that you require. In most cases, you can test with blood, urine, or swabs of the mouth or sex organs.
How long do the results of an STD test take?
Depending on the testing route you take, i.e whether you decide to visit your doctor or take an at home STD test, your STD results could take anywhere 2-5 days.
Are at-home STD tests accurate?
With current technology and testing options that exist on the market, you should expect to see the same level of accuracy as an STD test that takes place in a clinic. It is however important to keep in mind that the accuracy of the results of an at-home STD test is going to greatly depend on the accuracy of the samples that you collect.
Written by Hannah Kingston on November 30, 2020
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Adolescents and Young Adults - www.cdc.gov
- Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet - www.cdc.gov
- What are the 10 most common STDs? - www.stdwatch.com
- The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer - www.cancer.org/
Chlamydia - Everything you need to know - www.stdwatch.com
- Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) - www.who.int
- Gonorrhea - Everything you need to know - www.stdwatch.com
- HIV and Women - www.cdc.gov
- Herpes Simplex Virus - www.who.int
- Top Ten STD Panels - www.stdwatch.com
- Trichomoniasis - CDC Fact Sheet - www.cdc.gov
- Trichomoniasis - www.womenshealth.gov
- Which STD tests should I get? - www.cdc.gov
- Where to get tested for STDs - www.stdwatch.com