What’s The Difference Between STDs And STIs?

You probably learned to group conditions such as herpes, chlamydia and genital warts under the term STD, meaning sexually transmitted disease. But in the past five years or so, these three consonants have increasingly been replaced by STI (sexually transmitted infection), leading many to ask: what’s the actual difference between STDs and STIs?

Is the term STD… out of fashion?

More and more OB-GYNs seem to use the latter term when they discuss conditions like herpes and chlamydia with their patients. And if you’ve Googled the topic lately (no judgment!), you probably see STI more than you used to. The short answer? Yeah, in a move to de-stigmatise sexually transmitted complications, the term STD is being used less and less. But the semantics are rooted in a subtle scientific distinction.

So… what’s the difference between STDs and STIs?

An STD, or sexually transmitted disease, is so named when a sexually transmitted infection (STI) leads to symptoms. A symptom, or manifestation of an infection in the body, could be something like sores, itchiness or burning. But, importantly, not all STIs present symptoms. Things like HPV, for example, can present no symptoms and can go away on their own. Other STIs like syphilis can also exhibit no symptoms. And, not all STIs progress into STDs. But all STDs start out as STIs. Make sense?

Why the change?

More experts are starting to prefer STI because they think it carries less of a stigma.
”The word ‘disease’ implies that a person has a set of distinctive, identifiable symptoms and most of the time, sexually transmitted infections do not present any symptoms,” says Carolyn Deal, chief of the sexually transmitted diseases branch of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (Despite the branch name, Dean says her colleagues have made the switch to the term STI.)

Plus, when signs of an STI do appear, they’re often mild or cause no real problem. That makes the term disease feel off, especially considering that millions of people have or have had one, says Fred Wyand, director of communications at the American Sexual Health Association.

Switching the terminology also has to do with removing the association with shame and unseemliness that the letters STD still have. The word ‘disease’ has a stigma, while ‘infection’ reflects something more benign and less scary, says Deal.

The bottom line: It’s a good idea to use the term STI in an effort to make everyone feel less intimidated – and to help mitigate the stigma. But if you stick to the old-school STD, it’s not like your friends, partner, and OB-GYN won’t know what you’re talking about.



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