STI symptoms in women

Dr. Babak Ashrafi

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 07 Jan 2022

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause a variety of different symptoms in women. STIs are also known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) if they cause a long term infection.

STIs occur when you have unprotected sexual contact with an infected person. Sexual contact includes having oral sex or anal sex as STIs can be present around your bottom (rectum) or mouth.

While STIs are highly contagious, they are treatable. STIs can be treated by using medication, such as antiviral drugs or antibiotics. The complications of STIs can be prevented by following safe sex guidance. You can also get vaccinated to prevent certain complications, like getting a hepatitis B vaccine, or the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

STI symptoms in women graphic

Common STI symptoms in women

You can get specific STI symptoms that will be more common in women than in men. Some common STI symptoms in women include:

  • a rash or an itchy feeling around your vagina or bottom
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • vaginal bleeding
  • genital warts on your vagina (fleshy bumps on the skin)
  • blisters or ulcers on your genital area
  • pelvic pain
  • abdominal pain (pain in your tummy)
  • pain during sex
  • pain or a burning sensation when you pee

You might also feel flu-like symptoms such as a fever, aching muscles and fatigue with certain STIs.

Not all STIs will give you the same symptoms and sometimes you’ll have no symptoms at all. It’s important to get tested for an STI if you’ve had unprotected sex or are sexually active. Having an open conversation with your partner about testing for STIs will help to ensure protection for both of you.

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When do STI symptoms start?

You can start to see STI symptoms around 1 to 3 weeks after you’ve caught an infection. Symptoms can appear earlier or later depending on the type of STI. Some STIs, like herpes simplex virus, can stay dormant in your body and hide from your immune system. A trigger, such as stress, can cause STI symptoms to start. This might happen weeks or months after the initial infection.

Some STIs have an incubation period. The incubation period is the time it takes from when you become infected to when you start to see STI symptoms appear. Getting tested before the incubation period is over means you can get a false negative result. However, if you’re experiencing symptoms, you should still get tested as soon as possible and get another test some time later to make sure you are infection free. If you don’t have any symptoms, you should wait 1 to 2 weeks before getting tested.

What happens if an STI is left untreated?

Leaving an STI untreated can lead to further health problems. Most STIs are caused by tiny organisms such as:

  • bacteria, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, bacterial vaginosis (BV) or syphilis
  • viruses, like genital herpes or human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • parasites, such as trichomoniasis, pubic lice or scabies

When left untreated, these tiny organisms can spread to other parts of your body and cause problems. Some possible complications of STIs in women include:

  • pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • infertility
  • complications in pregnant women
  • chronic pelvic pain
  • specific types of cancer, like cervical cancer which is associated with HPV (a virus)

Other health problems include arthritis and heart disease. These complications are completely avoidable if you get tested as soon as possible so that you can start the right treatment.

If you test positive for an STI, you should make sure you’re tested for HIV. HIV is an STI caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. If you have another STI you’re more likely to get HIV, as having open sores on your skin can allow the virus to easily enter your body.

HIV can weaken your immune system and lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). AIDS is a potentially life threatening condition as a weakened immune system can lead to severe health problems

HIV and AIDS are treatable by taking regular antiretroviral medication, but these are more effective if you get diagnosed with HIV early.

What to do if you’ve had unprotected sex

If you’ve had unprotected sex and think you might have been exposed to an STI, visit your nearest sexual health clinic. It’s important to get tested as soon as possible to avoid any further complications. You can also request a home STI test kit from ZAVA.

Some STIs will show symptoms weeks or months after having unprotected sex. If you experience symptoms such as pain when you pee, itching or having sores around your genitals, you should still get tested.

Unprotected sex means having sex without contraception or a condom. Without using the barrier method, you will not be protected against STIs. This includes if you use birth control pills.

You will be at risk of getting pregnant if you’ve had unprotected sex. You can use emergency contraception, such as the morning after pill, safely to avoid pregnancy and you can get it from ZAVA. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken 24 hours after unprotected sex, but can still be taken up to 3 or 5 days after.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion
Accreditations: BSc, MBBS, MRCGP (2008)

Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.

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Last reviewed: 07 Jan 2022

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