Sexually Transmitted Infections: What Women Need to Know

Hazel DeanApril is Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) Awareness Month, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the HHS Office on Women's Health are teaming up to raise awareness and start the conversation around STIs among women.

STIs, or STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), affect women differently than men. Because the vagina is moist and has a thin lining, it's easier for a woman to get an STI than it is for a man to get one. Also, a woman is less likely to have symptoms of common STIs — such as chlamydia and gonorrhea — compared with a man. That means that a woman could have an STI and not know it.

Untreated STIs can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can result in ectopic pregnancy and infertility, making it difficult, even impossible for a woman to have a baby. A woman who is pregnant can pass an STI to her baby. Genital herpes, syphilis, and HIV can be passed to babies during pregnancy and delivery.

A woman who has an STI is also more likely to get HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. STIs that cause sores — such as genital herpes, syphilis, and chancroid — can make it easier for HIV to enter the body.

That said, there are steps a woman can take to avoid STIs. First, a woman can abstain from sex or limit her number of sex partners. The surest way to keep from getting any STI is to not have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. If abstinence is not the right choice, having sex with only one person who has agreed to have sex only with you can lower your risk of infection.

To help avoid STIs, a woman can use condoms every time she has sexual contact, from the very start to the very end of each sex act, and with every sex partner. A woman needs to know how to use condoms correctly. Condoms can protect you from STIs only if you use them correctly. Check out the How to Use Condoms page for tips and step-by-step instructions.

Furthermore, women should find a trusted doctor with whom they talk openly about sexual health. Doctors are there to help with any and all health problems, so don't feel embarrassed about talking sexual health.

A woman needs to get regular health care. Ask your doctor if you should be tested for STIs and/or vaccinated for HPV and Hepatitis B. Testing for and vaccinating against STIs is simple and can often be done during your checkup.

If you use birth control, talk to your doctor about your STI risk. Some methods of birth control, like pills, shots, implants, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and diaphragms, will not protect you from STIs. If you use one of these methods, be sure to also use a condom every time you have sex.

For more information about how STIs affect women, check out these resources about STIs and women's health: