Are STDs the same as STIs?

People often use the terms STDs and STIs interchangeably; however, they are slightly different. STD stands for sexually transmitted disease, while STI stands for sexually transmitted infections.

Stethoscope, syringes and medications for STDs

STDs and STIs don’t mean the same thing. Essentially the difference between STDs and STIs lies in the words “diseases” and “infections”. 

STI is the proper term to use for most sexually transmitted conditions. An STI is only considered to be an STD if it causes symptoms. The thought of having an STD sends shudders down people’s spines because diseases are taken to be more severe than infections.

Examples of STIs caused by viruses include herpes, hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), while examples of STIs caused by bacteria include gonorrhoea, chlamydia and syphilis.

Examples of STDs are genital herpes and pelvic inflammatory diseases.

Difference between disease and infection

An infection can be considered the initial thing that happens before a disease occurs. It is the first step to the development of a disease. 

An infection is when harmful microorganisms or parasites invade the body. Infections can begin anywhere and can be transmitted via various ways, including body contact, fluid contact and sexual means. 

On the other hand, disease occurs when an infection has spread to different parts and organs of the body, causing damage. Diseases often occur with obvious signs and symptoms, which is often not the case with some common STIs like gonorrhoea which are usually asymptomatic.

How STDs start

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All STDs first start as an STI before they develop into a disease. 

Foreign microorganisms enter your body via various routes such as body fluids like blood, vaginal secretion, saliva and semen. The organisms then start to multiply. 

With time, the infections develop into diseases by causing damage to cells and organs. At this point, signs and symptoms also start to appear. 

Note:

Not all STIs develop into an STD.

There are cases where an STI will never develop into a disease. An example of this is the human papillomavirus infection (HPV). 

HPVs often go away on their own without causing other health complications. In this case, they are considered an STI.

However, in rare cases where they don’t clear up, they can lead to certain kinds of cancer or cause genital warts. In such a case, they can then be considered a disease.

Signs and symptoms of STDs to watch out for

Sexually transmitted diseases can affect different parts of the body depending on the type of microorganism that caused the disease and the type of sexual activity you were involved in. 

Symptoms of an STD may not appear immediately; it can take days, weeks or even years for signs and symptoms to appear. 

Some common signs and symptoms of STDs to look out for include:

  • Rashes in the genitals or anal regions
  • Bumps or sores around the anus, mouth, thighs and pelvic region
  • Pain in the vaginal during penetrative sex
  • Painful urination
  • Pelvic pain
  • Penile discharge
  • Smelly or discoloured vaginal discharge
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Tingling sensation around the genitals

How to prevent STDs and STIs

A condom

Sexually transmitted diseases/infections can be prevented. However, the only sure way to prevent them is by abstaining from any form of sexual activity, including kissing and oral sex. 

If you are sexually active, there are some things you can do to lower your risk of getting an STI Or STD, such as:

  • Sticking with one sexual partner 
  • Using condoms during sex
  • Avoiding or limiting the use of alcohol and recreation drugs
  • Avoiding needle sharing as some STIs like hepatitis B and HIV can spread via blood
  • Getting vaccinations for STIs like hepatitis A, hepatitis B and HPV
  • Avoiding sex with a new partner until they have tested for STIs

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all sexually active adults should go for a test every year, you should consider getting a test if:

  • You had sex without consent
  • Shared an injection equipment
  • Had sex with multiple partners
  • You are worried you may be exposed to an STI.

Note that STDs like hepatitis A and genital herpes have an incubation period. Therefore, getting tested too soon may not detect an infection. You may need to get tested twice to rule out infections.

Depending on your situation and the peculiarity of your case, your doctor is in the best position to advise you on the next step to take.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Genital herpes: CDC fact sheet (detailed).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Which STD tests should I get?