STDs: A major health challenge for women

 Cropped shot of a young woman holding a condom while sitting with her boyfriend

STDs: A major health challenge for women

One of the most major public health challenges in the United States is sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nearly 20 million new cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis (infections that are required to be routinely reported to public health officials) occur each year in the U. S.  Around one-half of these infections occur in young people 15 to 24 years of age. 

While both men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases in about equal numbers, they are not affected by STDs equally. Women are especially vulnerable to contracting a STD and disproportionately bear the long-term consequences of them.  Each year, up to 24,000 women with an untreated STD will be diagnosed with infertility and untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death in up to 40 percent of cases. Women are also more likely than men to experience long-term health complications from untreated STDs.

Why STDs affect women differently than men

Below are 9 ways in which women are impacted more severely than men by STDs according to the CDC:

1.  A woman’s vagina places her at risk due to its thin, delicate lining and moist environment.  This allows the bacteria an easier entrance and ideal conditions to grow. 

2.  Symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases are less noticeable in women than in men.  This makes the disease hard to notice anything is wrong.  In addition, if any symptoms do occur, they can go away even though the infection may remain.

3.  If a woman does experience symptoms, she is likely to confuse them for something else.  A discharge from the vagina is normal in women and if burning or itching is present they may attribute it to a yeast infection.  However a discharge in men would not be normal indicating something is wrong.  This is why regular testing is important for sexually active women (and men).

4.  Because of a woman’s anatomy, she may not notice symptoms as easily as a man.  Some symptoms such as a genital ulcer from herpes or syphilis may occur in the vagina but will not be visible.  But if a sore appears on a man’s penis, he will notice it right away. 

5.  STDs that occur in women are more likely to have devastating consequences that can affect her future ability to conceive a baby.  Pelvic inflammatory disease from an untreated STD can result in infertility and ectopic pregnancy. 

6.  Pregnant women can pass on STDs to their unborn baby.  STDs of genital herpes, syphilis, and HIV can be passed to babies during pregnancy and delivery.  These babies can be affected by an STD by being born stillbirth, low birth weight or less than five pounds, brain damage, blind and deaf. 

7.  The most common STD in women is human papillomavirus (HPV).  HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer and can also cause cancers of the vagina and vulva in women.  Men can also get HPV but most men do not develop any serious health problems from it even though it can put them at risk of cancers of the penis, anus and back of the throat.

8.  Fortunately there is a vaccine that can prevent HPV. It is recommended starting around age 11 to 12, both boys and girls get the two shot series of HPV vaccine six to twelve months apart. 

9.  The good news is that women usually see their doctor more frequently than men in which they can use this time to ask for an STD screening.  Women should keep in mind that the pap test only screens for cervical cancer and is not designed to test for other types of cancers or STDs. 

How women can protect themselves from STDs

All women should take extra precaution protecting themselves from STDs.  Here are several steps women can take to reduce her risk:

·      Have sex with only one uninfected partner

·      Use a latex condom every time for vaginal, anal, and oral sex

·      Talk to your partner about past sex partners and needle drug use.  Don’t have sex with someone who might have an STD.

·      Before having sex with someone, look at them closely for any sign of an STD – a rash, a sore, redness or discharge.

·      Many women frequently have no noticeable symptoms of an STD.  Eighty percent of women with gonorrhea have no symptoms until the disease is advanced.  All women should have annual pap smears including an STD workup at each annual exam.