We live in an era of "hookup culture," which can be really fun. There is real power in owning your sexuality and living it, whatever that means for you. But with all that hooking up, there are also increased risks — both emotional and physical. Your best armor in both cases (but especially the latter) is knowledge. Which is why today, we're talking about everyone’s favorite topic: STDs! Or is it STIs? Is there a difference between STDs and STIs? Great question. The answer is: Yes and no.
Generally, the terms STD and STI can be used interchangeably, so if you've been using one or the other, you're not technically wrong. But there are some subtle differences and some really important reasons to understand the distinction. First of all, STD is a term that stands for “sexually transmitted disease” and STI means “sexually transmitted infection.” According to Planned Parenthood, "Medically, infections are only called diseases when they cause symptoms, and many STIs don’t have any symptoms. So that’s why you may hear people say STIs — it’s technically more accurate, and also reminds people that there are often no symptoms so it’s important to get tested."
Plus, not all STIs result in STDs. Confused? Don't worry, this will all start to make sense. Basically, a "disease" is a medical issue with symptoms and clear signs. But according to the American Sexual Health Association, “several of the most common STDs have no signs or symptoms in the majority of persons infected. Or they have mild signs and symptoms that can be easily overlooked." This means they aren't technically diseases, but they do still qualify as infections that "may or may not result in 'disease.' This is true of chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and human papillomavirus (HPV), to name a few."
As a result, people, particularly in the medical field, have increasingly started using STI as their preferred term. They are doing so "in an effort to clarify that not all sexually transmitted infections turn into a disease. For instance, the vast majority of women who contract HPV (human papillomavirus) will not develop the resulting disease, cervical cancer," according to Before Play (an organization that aims to reduce the amount of unintended pregnancies in Colorado and Michigan).
There is another reason why STI is becoming a more common term: stigma. As Before Play explains, there are still many people who feel shame around the term STD. Ironically, one of our best weapons against STD and STI transmissions is overcoming that shame and stigma, as they are major factors in both people being afraid to get tested and treated, as well as informing their sexual partners of their status.
A recent study by UK health and beauty retailer Superdrug surveyed more than 2,000 people in the U.S. and UK in order to learn more about the effects of STDs and STIs on relationships. What they discovered is that although 80 percent of the people surveyed would not think less of someone who has or had an STI, more than 40 percent of them don’t ask their partners if they have ever tested positive for an STI. To make matters more complicated, more than 50 percent of women reported they have more unprotected sex than protected sex.
We owe it to ourselves to be better. While it can be awkward to bring up STIs with a new partner, especially if things are getting hot and heavy, it is your body and you have every right to know what you're exposing it to. We also need to be better about protecting our sexual health by using protection.
So, what have we learned today? STDs and STIs are both generally correct terms, however not all STIs will become STDs. Also (and I can't say this enough), condoms! Always condoms!