STIs in women

Women's Health Guide: Keeping Sex Safe

Although sexually transmitted infections affect both men and women, women suffer the long-term consequences of STIs much more than men do. For example, over 24,000 women in the United States each year become infertile due to untreated STIs. Additionally, untreated syphilis in pregnant women causes death of infants in approximately 40% of cases.

Why are women so much more severely affected by STIs than men? 

Because of women’s anatomy: A woman’s vagina is naturally moist and is therefore a good environment for bacteria to grow. Additionally, the lining of the vagina is very thin and delicate, unlike the skin of the penis, which makes it easier for viruses and bacteria to penetrate. 

Because women are less likely to show symptoms: Common STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea will typically not show symptoms for women like they do for most men. If symptoms do occur in women, they will often disappear even while the infection remains. 

Because women are more likely to confuse STIs with other conditions: Since women are used to having normal vaginal discharge, it doesn't seem out of the ordinary when it occurs because of unhealthy reasons like an STI. Additionally, other symptoms, such as itching or burning, could be confused with other ailments that commonly affect women, like a yeast infection. 

Because symptoms are not always visible: While a man is very likely to notice sores caused by herpes or syphilis, on women these ulcers will often occur inside the vagina making them less noticeable.  

What long-term effects do STIs have on women? 

STIs can cause infertility: While common STIs such as chlamydia will not usually cause any lasting complications for men, women may experience much more dire consequences. Pelvic inflammatory disease is a common result of untreated STIs in women, which can lead to serious problems such as infertility. 

STIs can cause problems with childbirth and pregnancy: The effects of untreated STIs on babies can result in dangerous consequences such as stillbirth, blindness, deafness, low birth weight, and brain damage. Additionally, some diseases can be passed from women to their babies during pregnancy or delivery, such as herpes, syphilis, and HIV. 

STIs lead to serious health problems in women: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in women, and it is also the most common cause of cervical cancer. While HPV is also very common in men, they usually don't develop any serious complications from the infection. 

How can women protect themselves from STIs? 

Use condoms: Oral contraception and other forms of birth control will prevent you from getting pregnant, but they will not protect you against STIs. This is why it is important for your partner to always use a condom (preferably made of latex) during intercourse.

Get tested regularly: Women should receive Pap tests to check for any signs of HPV or cervical cancer each year, as well as talk to their doctors as often as possible about being tested for other common STIs.

Communicate: It is important to have an open line of communication with partners to discuss sexual history and any fears surrounding STIs. 

Last Updated: August 24, 2015