Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are easy to believe that they only happen to other people, not yourself. This kind of thinking is one reason why almost 68 million Americans have some form of a STD. However, it’s women who have a higher biological risk for contracting STDs and HIV than men, with a higher probability of transmission from men to women than vice versa as shown in a 2006 study.
Women bear the brunt of these diseases with chlamydia and gonorrhea as two of the leading preventable causes of infertility and ectopic pregnancies in the United States. There are several reasons why STDs affect women disproportionately and differently than men. Below is the CDC’s list of why women are impacted more by STDs than men:
Compared to men, the female anatomy automatically sets women apart for several reasons. One is the lining of the vagina is thinner and more delicate than the skin on the penis, making it easier for bacteria and viruses to penetrate. Secondly, the vagina is a warm, moist environment perfect for allowing bacteria to grow.
Women have fewer symptoms than men
Two common STDs in women, Chlamydia and gonorrhea, have few symptoms in women. If any symptoms do occur, they can go away even though the infection remains.
STD symptoms in women can be confused for something else
Symptoms of STDs often include discharge or burning and itching. Discharge and burning/itching are common for women without STDs to experience and may be confused for a yeast or urinary tract infection. Men, however, do not experience discharge and are more likely to associate this with an STD.
It’s harder for women to recognize symptoms
If an STD is occurring inside the vagina, it will be more difficult for a woman to notice this. For example, genital ulcers (like from herpes or syphilis) can occur in the vagina where they are not visible. Men will have a much easier time noticing sores on their penis and therefore see a doctor sooner for treatment.
STDs in women increase health complications and infertility
Untreated STDs in women can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can result in infertility and ectopic pregnancy, and other pregnancy complications. The most common STD in women is the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is the main cause of cervical cancer in women. Men also get HPV but do not develop serious health problems like women. Chlamydia, another common STD, results in few complications in men but can be passed from mother to baby during childbirth causing life-threatening problems. STD complications in pregnant women may also include stillbirth, low birth weight (less than five pounds), brain damage, blindness, and deafness.
How women can protect themselves from STDs
The most important thing to remember is that anyone who is sexually active is at risk of getting an STD. Fortunately, STDs are preventable as long as both men and women practice steps reducing their risk of contracting an STD. Here is the advice from the CDC:
- Practice abstinence – it’s the surest way of STD prevention.
- Use condoms
- Get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. It’s safe, effective, and helps prevents HPV-related genital warts and cervical cancer in women.
- Talk with your partner about STDs and staying safe when having sex.
- Get tested – many STDs have no symptoms but can still cause health-related problems.
- If you test positive for an STD, it’s not the end of the world. Many are curable and all of them are treatable.