Approximately 19 million new sexually transmitted disease (STD) infections occur each year. Young women between the ages of 19 and 24 bear the brunt of these infections, the sexual health effects of which can range from burning, itching, and discomfort to infertility, cancer, and even death. The best way to prevent STDs, which can be caused by viruses or bacteria, is to abstain from sex or protect yourself by using a barrier method of birth control.
There are many STDs out there, but the ones that occur most commonly in women, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are:
Chlamydia: The rate of infection among women (610.6 cases per 100,000 females) is more than two and a half times the rate among men (233.7 cases per 100,000 males).
Gonorrhea: In 2010, 309,341 people were diagnosed with gonorrhea, an increase of 2.8 percent over the previous year. As with chlamydia, women are more often affected by gonorrhea than men. The number of people actually infected is likely higher since many people with gonorrhea are not diagnosed.
Genital herpes: One in five teens and adults has genital herpes, which is more common in women than men.
Syphilis: Unlike the STDs mentioned above, syphilis is more common in men than in women. In fact, men are six times more likely to be diagnosed with syphilis than women. Last year, the rate of diagnosis actually decreased 21 percent among women but increased 1.3 percent among men.
When a woman already has an STD, she is particularly vulnerable to infection by a second STD. This is because STDs cause inflammation of the vaginal tissues, which can injure blood vessels and make them more susceptible to small infectious agents, like viruses and bacteria.
HIV, an STD with the most significant health repercussions, is easier to contract under these conditions.
African American and other women of minority races are hit hardest by STDs of all types, with rates in each category that far exceed those in Caucasian women. For example, African Americans are eight times more likely to have Chlamydia than Caucasians, and Alaskan natives are five times more likely to be diagnosed with this STD.
The potential health complications of STD infections for women are many, and may include:
Infertility: At their most severe, untreated STDs can lead to infertility in women. STDs are equal opportunity sterilizers, men can also become sterile as a result of chlamydia or gonorrhea infections.
Ectopic pregnancy: This occurs when scarring of a woman’s reproductive organs, which can occur as a result of an STD like chlamydia or gonorrhea, causes a fertilized egg to implant and grow outside the uterus.
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): Two out of five women whose chlamydia infection is not treated develop PID, which can lead to pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility. Untreated gonorrhea can also cause PID.
Infection of newborns: Pregnant women with untreated syphilis, herpes virus, hepatitis B, or HIV may pass these infections on to their babies. This can cause premature birth, stillbirth, death soon after birth, birth defects, and in the case of HIV, lifetime infection.
Heart disease and brain function: Untreated syphilis can lead to cardiovascular and neurological problems.
Cervical cancer: Most cervical cancers are caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that also causes genital warts.
Death: Untreated syphilis and HIV eventually lead to death.
How to Reduce Your Risk
Abstinence from all sex — vaginal, anal, and oral — is the best way to prevent the transmission of STDs. However, there are several less drastic steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting an STD when you are having sex:
- Always use a new condom. Use a new latex condom every time you have any type of sex, even during your period. Other types of contraception, such as pills, patches, diaphragms, sponges, intrauterine devices, and the rhythm method do not protect against STDs.
- Get tested and treated. If you have any symptoms that could point to an STD, see your doctor immediately so you can be properly diagnosed and treated. Abstain from sex until you have been checked. If you are diagnosed with an STD, you should ask your doctor if your partner should be tested and treated as well, to prevent reinfection.
- Get vaccinated. In the case of HPV, a vaccine exists that can reduce your risk of contracting some of the virus types that cause cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all women between the ages of 13 and 26 receive the series of vaccines needed to protect against HPV.
- Have a mutually monogamous relationship. Once you and your partner know you are both STD free, stay faithful.
An STD can seriously affect your health, sexual and otherwise, and even threaten your life. Taking the necessary precautions to protect yourself can help ensure a safer, healthier future for you and your partner.