What's The Difference Between STIs and STDs?
You may have heard both "STI" and "STD" thrown around in conversation, but "what's the difference between "STI" and "STD," you ask? These two terms are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing, but there are some very real distinctions between the two labels.
For one, the term "STD," short for sexually transmitted disease, used to be the catch-all phrase we'd give to the infections and diseases that could be transmitted through sexual contact. But what about infections that don't actually turn into disease? That's where the term "STI," short for sexually transmitted infection, comes in.
Are STI and STD the Same?
In a nutshell, no, an STI and STD aren't really the same. It's true that both of the terms "STI" and "STD" include the same group of viruses, bacteria and parasites that can be transmitted through sexual contact. But these two groups are technically different. When someone has an STI, that means they have an infection, but the infection hasn't developed into a disease yet.
Take human papillomavirus (HPV) for example. HPV is an STI that may never present any symptoms. But if a woman with HPV develops cervical cancer because of the infection, then it becomes an STD since the infection developed into cancer, a disease. Another example of the difference between an STI versus an STD is the way that chlamydia or gonorrhea infections (both STIs) can develop into pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, a disease) if left untreated.
The main difference between STI and STD is that, with an STI, you may never have any symptoms that happen with a disease, and with an STD, you have developed a disease. However, both an STI and STD can be passed to sexual partners, even with no symptoms. So, have an open discussion about any concerns—and testing—with every new partner.
Another big distinction between an STI and STD is that diseases caused by some STIs (take HIV/AIDS, for example) can be long-term and cause issues in the health and function of one or more parts of the body. On the other hand, there are many STIs that are curable and even manageable so they never develop into disease or affect the way you live your life.
That being said, many common STIs remain dormant in the body, without showing any signs or symptoms and may be passed between partners without either person becoming aware. This unsettling fact is why it's so important to consult with your doctor and get screened for STIs along with routine STD screenings.
What Are STIs and STDs?
Infections are usually the first steps of disease, and they happen when invaders (aka bacteria, viruses or parasites) enter the body and spread. If the infection spreads enough to damage normal body functions and cause symptoms, it's considered a disease. So, technically speaking, all STDs can come from STIs, but not all STIs are STDs. Got it? Good!
Here are some common STIs, STDs and STIs that tend to become STDs:
Genital herpes: a virus that is transmitted as an STI that becomes an STD with an outbreak
HPV: a virus that is transmitted through bodily contact that becomes an STD when warts appear
HIV: STI that becomes AIDS
Gonorrhea: An STI that, if left untreated, can become PID (pelvic inflammatory disease)
Chlamydia: An STI that, if left untreated, can become PID (pelvic inflammatory disease)
Trichomoniasis: An STI that, if left untreated, can become PID (pelvic inflammatory disease)
Just from these common infections, it's a little easier to understand why we use the distinction of STI versus STD. It's also important to understand that any STI can potentially lead to other reproductive health complications, like pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, or other health issues if left untreated.
How Can I Tell the Difference Between STI and STD?
Sometimes STIs don't show any severe symptoms, such as the obvious signs of a genital herpes outbreak, and many individuals who are infected don't even realize it. So if you are concerned you might have an STI, don't panic! Most humans come across at least one STI at some point in their lives, and many are easy to get rid of, as long as you visit your doctor as soon as you feel there might be something wrong.
That being said, STI screenings specifically test those infections that can go unnoticed, and in fact, your regular pap smear can be used to screen for common STIs. Pap smears (aka wet mounts) are not always 100% accurate, but your OB-GYN can still provide accurate STI and STD screenings.
Generally speaking, if you're experiencing any symptoms associated with common STDs, it's time to get tested. You can speak with your OB-GYN or general physician about both STI and STD screening, as sometimes these consist of different tests.
How Do I Get Screenings for STIs and STDs?
As mentioned above, not all STD screenings use the same test. Some are individually tested for while others can be grouped together, like chlamydia and gonorrhea. When you visit an OB-GYN, you can request both STD and STI screenings. Your doctor may ask about your sexual activity and other health factors, and it's important to answer as honestly as possible so that they order the right tests. They may recommend you to get screened for certain infections over others.
Also, there are a few different ways your doctor will test you, depending on what they think you should be screened for. You might get blood drawn for a blood test, have a urine test or get an extra swab during your gynecological exam.
In many cases, it's much easier to test for an STD because these typically have symptoms that your doctor can evaluate. But, it's always a good idea to get screened for both STIs and STDs when you visit your doctor. And since STD and STI screening isn't usually part of a regular checkup, speak up when you visit your doctor. No need to be shy—screenings are painless (and important!).
While STI and STD may be used interchangeably, we now know that there are important differences we need to look out for. That way, we can get the right tests and treatments to begin treatment and limit any long-term damage. And no matter what name you give it, bodily infections are a normal part of life, and nothing to be embarrassed about.