Why Women Are More at Risk for STDs

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Diverse Group of Girl Friends

For the first time in years, sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise, especially among young people. While the increase is affecting all groups, women are finding themselves particularly at risk. What’s driving these trends, and what steps can women take to protect themselves?

Why STD Rates Are Up

According to a November 2015 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis have risen for the first time since 2006. Experts say this could be due to a number of factors:

  • Casual sex culture. Inconsistent sex education standards across the U.S., along with an increase in casual hookup sex, could play a role. Rhode Island’s Department of Health points to social apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, which are often used to arrange casual and anonymous sexual encounters. A 2013 New York University study found Craigslist was responsible for a 16% increase in HIV cases between 1999 and 2008 across 33 states.

  • Lack of testing. Despite recommendations from the CDC and the United States Preventive Services Task Force, experts believe far too many young people are not getting tested yearly, and therefore don’t know they are infected.

  • False sense of security. Improvements in medications for STDs—including HIV—are undoubtedly good news for patients. However, they may also be giving women and men the mistaken impression that these diseases are now less threatening, leading to more relaxed attitudes about condom use and testing for STDs. This is further compounded by many individuals’ erroneous presumption that they are able to recognize visually if their partner has contracted a STD, even though someone can be infected without showing any physical symptoms.

What Makes Women More Vulnerable to STDs

Experts believe that women in particular are at high risk for chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea for a few reasons:

  • Anatomy. A woman’s vagina is more exposed and vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases than male anatomy, since the skin covering the penis helps protect men from several STDs.

  • Gender roles. Some woman may not feel comfortable (or able) to insist on condom use.
  • Non-condom forms of birth control. Intrauterine devices and implants have become increasingly popular, and while these are effective ways to help prevent pregnancy, they do not protect against STDs.

Because chlamydia (the most common STD) and gonorrhea often have no symptoms, many infections go undiagnosed. For women, this can result in pelvic inflammatory disease or serious, permanent damage to the reproductive system, making it difficult or impossible to get pregnant later on. Chlamydia can also cause a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy that occurs outside the womb). And syphilis, if left untreated, can lead to serious complications, including blindness.

How Women (and Men) Can Prevent STDs

The good news is all of these diseases are curable with medication, and you can prevent complications by catching them early. In light of these new increases, it’s more important than ever for women (and men) to take the appropriate steps to protect themselves and prevent the spread of STDs:

  • Practice safe sex. In short, use condoms—and use them correctly. (Read the instructions on the package.) Remember, other forms of birth control do not prevent STDs, so men should wear condoms consistently with any new partner. Don’t stop using condoms until you and your partner have both been tested for STDs.

  • Get tested at least once a year. Anyone who is sexually active should have regular STD screenings, but this is especially true if you have never been tested before, recently had a break-up or divorce, have been cheated on or have cheated on a partner, or if you are entering a new relationship. STD screening services are covered under Medicare Part B. Most healthcare plans must provide coverage for recommended STD preventive services without cost sharing under the Affordable Care Act, and many health clinics Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source provide confidential and free or low-cost testing.

  • Reduce your number of sex partners, and reduce your risk. According to the CDC, the higher prevalence of infection within sexual networks increases the likelihood of acquiring an STD with each sexual encounter.

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  1. Reported Cases of STDs on the Rise in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2015/std-surveillance-report-press-release.html
  2. U.S. STD Cases on the Rise for the First Time Since 2006. Yahoo Health. https://www.yahoo.com/health/us-std-cases-on-the-rise-for-the-first-time-152224487.html
  3. STD rates rise dramatically, especially among men. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/19/health/std-rates-rise-dramatically/
  4. Chlamydia – CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/std/chlamydia/stdfact-chlamydia.htm
  5. Tinder and hookup apps blamed for rise in STDs. CNN Money. http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/26/technology/rhode-island-tinder-stds/
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 21
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