If you’re worried you’ve contracted an STD, symptoms in women aren’t always obvious. Many women with sexually transmitted diseases don’t see or feel any symptoms at all. When symptoms do appear, they’re often ambiguous or vague, making it hard to know the cause without getting tested. Women commonly confuse STD symptoms like discharge, odor, burning, and itching for something else, like a urinary tract infection or yeast infection.
According to the CDC, women are uniquely vulnerable to serious consequences of STDs.1 Women are less likely than men to show symptoms for common STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. In addition, it can be harder for women to see symptoms because sores or ulcers (like from herpes or syphilis) may occur inside the vagina, where they aren’t easily visible.2 Without these first noticeable signs of an STD, infections can go unnoticed and untreated, which can cause long-lasting or even irreversible health problems, including infertility.
Getting tested is not only quick and easy, it’s the only way to know for sure if you do or do not have an STD.
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Some women show STD symptoms within days or weeks of infection, but others take longer or may never experience symptoms at all. It’s common to show few or no symptoms, so a woman living with STDs may not know anything is wrong for a long time. The incubation period of STDs, which is the time between when you contract an infection and when symptoms first appear, varies depending on the type of infection.
Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections among both men and women. It is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted during oral, vaginal, or anal sex. If left untreated, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)—a serious condition which makes it difficult or even impossible to get pregnant.3 Most women don’t show symptoms, but when symptoms of chlamydia do occur, they typically appear about 1 to 3 weeks after infection.4
Chlamydia symptoms in women include:
Gonorrhea is a very common STD caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It can be spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex and, like chlamydia, can cause serious damage to a woman’s reproductive system if left untreated. Most women with gonorrhea don’t show any symptoms. When they do, gonorrhea symptoms usually show up within a week after exposure and are usually too mild to point to a specific cause. They’re often mistaken for a bladder infection.5
Gonorrhea symptoms in women include:
Herpes simplex viruses—more commonly called herpes—is a viral infection that causes sores around the mouth (oral herpes) or genitals (genital herpes). You can get herpes from kissing or through any form of sexual contact. It’s spread through skin-to-skin contact with sores, or the mouth, or genitals of somebody who has herpes, as well as infected body fluids like saliva and genital secretions.
Most women with genital herpes don’t know they have it, and some can go months or even years without showing symptoms. If you do get symptoms, they usually show up within 2-12 days of infection and can sometimes be mistaken for something else, like pimples or ingrown hair.6 The first outbreak can be the most severe and uncomfortable.
Herpes symptoms in women include:
If you have herpes, you’ll continue to have it for the rest of your life. Although sores heal within a few weeks of appearing, the virus is still present even when there are no symptoms. It can reactivate weeks, months, or years in the future and cause another flare-up of sores. After the initial outbreak, the following outbreaks are typically more moderate.
HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, destroys immune cells and eventually weakens the body’s ability to fight off infections. It’s mostly contracted during anal or vaginal sex or when sharing needles. In the United States, about 1 in 4 people living with HIV are women.7
Many women with HIV don’t know they have it for a long time after infection. This is because it’s common to show no symptoms for weeks, months, or even years. Some people develop flu-like symptoms within the first 2-4 weeks of infection during the acute phase (the first stage of HIV). HIV symptoms often resemble less serious conditions and can be easily brushed off or ignored. Additionally, HIV can affect women in unique ways, so they may experience changes to their menstrual cycle or get menopause symptoms earlier than other women.8
HIV symptoms in women can include:
Left untreated, an HIV infection progresses to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which makes a person more likely to develop serious or even life-threatening illnesses from opportunistic infections. Opportunistic infections are diseases that the typical immune system would otherwise be able to defend against.
AIDS symptoms in women include:
Syphilis is a highly contagious infection that’s usually transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex through contact with a chancre (syphilitic sore). These chancres can appear on your vulva, in the vagina, around the anus, inside the rectum, or in or around the mouth.
In women, syphilis symptoms can be easily overlooked or unnoticed. Sores may be mistaken for ingrown hairs or harmless bumps, or they can occur internally or in places that are difficult to look at. Also, syphilis can be confusing and sneaky because it goes through different stages with varying symptoms, and there may be times when you have no symptoms at all. According to the CDC, the start of first syphilis symptoms can range from 10-90 days after infection.9
Syphilis symptoms in women include:
Chancres usually last about 3-6 weeks before healing on their own. Even though the sore is gone, the infection stays in the body and can eventually progress to more advanced stages. Left untreated, syphilis can damage your nervous system, brain, and other organs and cause serious health problems like blindness, paralysis, or even death.
Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver that causes liver damage. Certain types are caused by viral infections, the most common being hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Hepatitis A is spread through eating or drinking something contaminated by infected fecal matter. It can be transmitted during any sexual contact with an infected person, including fecal-oral contact. Hepatitis B and C can be spread through exposure to infected blood, such as sharing contaminated needles, as well as through sex.
Usually, it takes a few weeks or months after infection to show hepatitis symptoms. New hepatitis A infections usually cause symptoms, but up to half of people with new hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections are asymptomatic, meaning they don’t see or feel any changes.10
Hepatitis symptoms in women include:
If you have symptoms of an STD, you should get tested. Left untreated, STD infections can damage your body, cause serious health issues, and affect your future plans for having kids. If you’re pregnant, it’s especially important to get tested and treated because infections can cause dangers and complications for your baby. Fortunately, most STDs are easily curable or treatable if they’re detected early.
Even if you don’t show any signs of an STD, you can’t rely on the absence of symptoms to determine there’s no infection. Many women don’t experience symptoms or may overlook symptoms that are mild or hidden. Whether something feels off or not, getting regularly tested for STDs is essential to keeping yourself healthy.
Getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you have an STD, and it’s a totally normal part of being sexually active. By choosing to get tested, you choose to get real answers so you can stop worrying or get treated, if necessary.
Medically Reviewed by Kaci Durbin, MD, MBA, FACOG on February 2, 2020Written by Taysha on January 18, 2020