The term “women” is used in this article to refer to people who identify as female and have the typical reproductive organs of a cisgender woman. We recognize that some people who identify as women do not have the same anatomy as that depicted in this article.
A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is a symptomatic infection that is spread primarily through sexual contact. Women can experience different STD symptoms than men. Knowing the signs that may indicate an infection can help you seek medical care and appropriate treatment.
Read on to learn about the common symptoms of STDs in women, as well as information on treatment and prevention.
The three types of pathogens (organisms that cause infection) that are often sexually transmitted are:
A person who is infected with one of these pathogens can transmit it to another person during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. However, some can also be spread through other skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.
STIs vs. STDs
The term “sexually transmitted infection” (STI) is sometimes used interchangeably with “sexually transmitted disease” (STD). However, the symptoms experienced differentiate the terms.
If you have no symptoms but do have an infection, you would have an STI. If you have symptoms and any complications due to the infection, it would be called an STD. However, healthcare providers may use either of these terms without any differences in how the conditions are diagnosed and treated.
STD Symptoms in Women
Women or people with vaginas may experience unique STD symptoms (if they experience symptoms at all) that are specific to their reproductive anatomy. However, some STD symptoms can be experienced by anyone who becomes infected.
If you do experience symptoms of chlamydia, it may take weeks to notice. They may include:
- Lower back or abdominal pain
- Burning sensation when you pee
- Bleeding between your typical menstrual periods
- Pain during sex
- Atypical vaginal discharge
Women who do experience symptoms may mistake them for a bladder or urinary tract infection. Symptoms are often mild and may include:
- Burning or pain while peeing
- A change in amount or color of vaginal discharge
- Spotting between menstrual periods
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
Gonorrhea may cause symptoms in other parts of the body, such as the eyes, throat, anus, and even the joints.
If symptoms are present, women may experience:
- Pain during sex
- Atypical vaginal discharge that may be frothy, strong-smelling, and have a gray, green, clear, or white color
- Itching and irritated genital area
- Irregular spotting between menstrual cycles
One in four people living with HIV in the United States are women. While it’s possible to experience flu-like symptoms after they first become infected with HIV, many people (including women) have no symptoms. Symptoms may include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Women can contract HIV by having vaginal sex with men who are infected or by injecting drugs or sharing needles with an infected person.
Most women experience no symptoms with an HPV infection. However, some HPV infections do cause genital warts. These warts often look like small or large bumps in the genital area, which can be flat, grouped together, or have a cauliflower-like appearance.
Though many people have no symptoms, the initial outbreak of genital herpes often is the most severe. Symptoms can include:
- Flu-like symptoms (such as fever, chills, headache, nausea, body aches, and sore throat)
- Swollen glands
- Soreness or pain in your genital or anal area
- Abdominal pressure
- Atypical vaginal discharge
Fluid-filled blisters at the site of the infection are also common. After the symptoms go away and the blisters heal, the virus remains dormant in the body. When they’re reactivated, additional outbreaks can occur.
Several viral hepatitis infections can be transmitted through sexual contact but don’t always cause symptoms. Those who do experience symptoms may have:
- Appetite loss
- Upset stomach and vomiting
- Darker-colored urine
- Light-colored bowel movements
- Pain in the stomach and joints
Symptoms for anyone who has a syphilis infection will typically come in stages, such as:
- Primary stage: A small, painless sore or group of sores may appear about 10–90 days after being exposed to the bacteria. The sores will appear at the site of infection, which can be the genital or anal areas.
- Secondary stage: If left untreated, the infection will enter a new stage as the sores heal. This may take a few weeks. Symptoms of a secondary stage syphilis infection include a non-itchy skin rash that appears on the chest, stomach, palms, or feet, sores on the cervix, mouth, or throat, fever, swollen glands, fatigue, muscle aches, and more.
- Latent stage: Once the symptoms of the first two stages heal and go away, this stage typically has no symptoms. However, some secondary stage symptoms can return for some women. This stage can last for years if the infection is not treated.
- Tertiary stage: If the infection progresses beyond the latent stage, it can cause serious health issues, resulting in nerve damage, vision loss, dementia, paralysis, and even death.
A syphilis infection that has gone untreated for years can result in a serious brain or spinal cord infection. People who have neurosyphilis may experience:
- Numbness in the lower part of the body, such as toes, feet, legs
- Atypical walking or inability to walk
- Confusion or challenges with concentration
- Depression, irritability, or other mental health issues
- Changes in vision
- Neck stiffness
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Anytime you notice changes in your body, you experience any symptoms commonly associated with STDs, or suspect you may be at risk for an infection, it’s wise to seek out medical attention.
However, many people (including those with vaginas) have no STD symptoms at all. If you are sexually active, getting tested regularly and when advised by a healthcare provider may be the only way to know for sure if you have a sexually transmitted infection.
There are different types of tests to determine if you have a specific STD. Routinely testing for all STDs is not recommended.
Talk with your healthcare provider about which test might be right for you. They may ask you about your health, any symptoms you have, and your sexual history to determine what tests to give you.
Depending on which tests they recommend, they may collect a sample of urine, blood, vaginal discharge, take a cheek swab, or a sample from a lesion on your body (if you have any). They may also do a physical exam to look for any characteristic signs and symptoms.
Treatment will also depend on the specific STD. Some infections can be cured with treatment. Others can’t be cured, but they can be managed with help from your healthcare provider.
Infections caused by bacteria, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, may be treated and often cured with antibiotics. Infections caused by parasites, such as trichomoniasis, are also treated with antibiotics.
Some viral infections, including hepatitis, can be cured with antiviral medicine. Others can only be managed so that symptoms and the risk of transmitting the infection to others are reduced, including HIV and genital herpes.
Some viral infections that are sexually transmitted may go away on their own, which can occur with cases of HPV. HPV that does not go away may need to be treated by removing genital warts or atypical cells that may turn into cancer on the cervix.
There are a number of strategies to reduce your risk of getting an STD, such as:
- Practicing safer sex: Using barrier methods, such as condoms and dental dams, correctly and consistently during sex reduces the chances of transmitting STDs. These safer sex tools are physical barriers that limit contact with potentially infected bodily fluids and skin between sexual partners.
- Limiting your number of sexual partners: Being mutually monogamous (where you only have sex with one person and that one person only has sex with you) can reduce your risk. This is because the more sex partners you have, the greater your chances of acquiring an STD.
- Getting vaccinated: Though you can’t be vaccinated against all STDs, some vaccines do exist for infections such as HPV and hepatitis B. Being vaccinated before you have a chance to come in contact with an STD is key for prevention.
While anyone who is sexually active may be at risk for an STD, women may experience different symptoms associated with an infection than men. The symptoms associated with viral, bacterial, and parasitic STDs will vary. However, many people (including people with vaginas) who have an infection will not experience any symptoms.
STD testing will depend on the type of infection that’s suspected. A healthcare provider may perform a physical exam and take different samples, including urine, blood, cheek swab, vaginal fluid, or lesion fluid to inform a diagnosis.
Treatment will also depend on the infection. Some infections can be cured by treatment, while others last a lifetime. You can reduce the risk of STDs by using condoms and dental dams during sex, limiting how many sexual partners you have, and getting vaccinated against certain STDs.
A Word From Verywell
Because not everyone who has an infection will have symptoms, it can be challenging to know whether you or another person currently has an STD. Getting tested for STDs regularly is recommended for those who are sexually active. Being aware of your STD status can help you get treatment sooner (if you need it). It can also reduce the risk of spreading it to other people.
Knowing the ways to prevent infection can also help inform discussions with sexual partners about how you’ll work together to reduce the risk for each other.
Frequently Asked Questions
How common are STIs?
STIs (or STDs) are very common. A recent report found that, in the United States, around 68 million people had an STI in 2018. Put another way, about 1 in 5 people have an STI.
How long can an STD go undetected?
An STD (or STI) can go undetected for a long time. Many people will not be tested and diagnosed with an infection because most don’t have symptoms. This means that it’s possible to go undetected and untreated for some time.
How long after infection does it take for STD symptoms to appear?
The time it takes for any symptoms to appear for a particular STD (or STI) after being exposed—if they appear at all—will differ depending on the specific cause. This is referred to as the incubation period. Symptoms can arise in as little as two days, as in some cases of genital herpes. It could take as long as 90 days before symptoms appear, which can occur with genital warts (HPV) or syphilis.