At some point in their life, millions of people get some sort of sexually transmitted disease (STD) or sexually transmitted infection (STI). Some people use STI and STD interchangeably; after all, both are sexually transmitted and may cause symptoms that require medical attention, and both are highly contagious. So, what’s the difference?
The fact is that although all STDs are preceded by STIs, not all STIs result in the development of STDs.
Simply an infection...
Sexually transmitted infections are just that: infections. These infections may be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites that enter the body through the lower reproductive organs (the penis or the vagina) and can spread to other parts of the body, causing a range of symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indications that you may have an STI include:
- Small bumps or open sores in the genital area; also in the oral or rectal area
- Pain or a burning sensation during urination
- Discharges from the penis
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
- Vaginal bleeding that seems unusual
- Experiencing pain during intercourse
Untreated, an STI can turn into an STD. For example, about 90 percent of women who are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) are cleared of their infections within two years. Only women with persistent infections are at risk for developing cervical cancer.
The longer an STI goes untreated, the more likely it is to develop into a full-blown STD, which may cause permanent damage to the body.
While individuals may not have a disease, or any symptoms at all, they can still be contagious. Because of this, it is important to use latex condoms to help reduce the spread of STIs, especially for individuals who are sexually active and/or have multiple partners.
A rose by any other name
Contagious medical conditions spread through sexual contact were once called “venereal diseases,” named after the Roman goddess of love, Venus. This term evolved into the more straightforward sexually transmitted diseases.
Over time, doctors began to notice a difference between infections and diseases and introduced new terminology to match: sexually transmitted infections. Not only does this mark a medical difference, but for many in the medical profession, the term STI helps reduce stigma for patients.
Jenelle Marie Pierce, founder and executive director of TheSTIProject.com, sums up the unnecessary stigma associated with STDs and STIs in an interview with Erin Everett for the Exclusive Inclusive podcast.
“We don’t shame someone for catching the flu, we don’t chastise someone for getting strep throat. We empathize with them, support them and ask how they’re feeling,” Pierce said. “But if you get an infection from having sex, we act like it’s OK to judge what the person did to put themselves at risk. It’s not.”