What’s The Difference Between STDs & STIs? It’s A Big One

You’ve probably heard of both STIs and STDs and may even have assumed they’re the same thing, but that’s not the case at all. One term pertains to infections and the other to diseases, but that’s not the only difference between the two. Here’s what you need to know for the sake of your sexual health.

  1. First, it helps to know what’s similar about them. You know conditions such as HPV, gonorrhea, and so on? Well, whether they’re technically known as STIs or STDs, they’re all transmitted by sexual acts. So it’s not such a biggie if you’ve been calling those conditions either of those terms. In fact, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, which is what can make them confusing.
  2. There’s one important difference between the STIs and STDs, though. This is where the interesting bit comes in. STDs are symptomatic while STIs don’t always have symptoms. If you’ve ever heard that some sexually-transmitted illnesses don’t show symptoms, now you know that those are considered to be STIs, not STDs.
  3. If it’s a disease, then symptoms are generally always present. So, if you’ve got herpes and the symptoms that go along with it have started to show, then you have an STD, not an STI. When symptoms are present, that signifies the presence of an STD. Simple, huh?
  4. The difference can save your life. You might think it’s not such a big deal to differentiate between STIs and STDs, but here’s the thing: by knowing that STIs don’t always show symptoms, you can be motivated to stay on top of your sexual health. If you’ve had unprotected sex or regularly have sex in your relationship, it’s important to get tested because you can’t rely on your symptoms alone to alert you to a health problem.
  5. Some common STIs aren’t given as much attention as they should have. There are some common STIs that don’t carry symptoms and yet can be passed on to other sexual partners or harm your health. These include HPV, chlamydia, herpes, and gonorrhea. The more aware you are of these illnesses, the better chances you have of having them properly diagnosed and treated.
  6. Symptoms might only crop up later. Although STIs are often silent illnesses, their symptoms can show up at a later stage but sometimes never do. This is scary because you could have an STI that doesn’t even let you know of its presence and is fooling you into thinking everything’s cool with your sexual health when it’s not. For example, chlamydia is a common STI, but up to 70% of people don’t experience any symptoms. As for herpes, another common STI, up to 90% of people infected with it don’t have any idea that they’re carrying it. Wow, that’s almost every person infected with it.
  7. STIs can pretend to be other conditions. What makes things even more complicated is that STIs can seem to be other health conditions altogether. They’re sort of like health chameleons. For example, if you’re experiencing vaginal itchiness on a regular basis, you might think it’s just a yeast infection instead of an STI. Making that assumption can delay treatment and have some nasty consequences as a result.
  8. Untreated STIs can be dangerous. They’re not just risky because you can transmit them to sexual partners without even knowing about them, but untreated STIs can harm your health even if you don’t know they’re hurting you. For example, STIs such as chlamydia can end up scarring your fallopian tubes, which can cause infertility. Another example is HPV. It’s responsible for roughly 31,000 cases of cancers every year, which include almost all cases of cervical and anal cancer, as well as 75% of vaginal cancer. Yet another good reason to get tested regularly.
  9. The term “STI” is about removing stigmas. The reason “STI” is becoming a more mainstream term is really important, and it has more to do with our emotional interpretation of words. Calling something a sexually-transmitted infection is much easier to deal with psychologically than referring to it as a disease. People might be more likely to get medical help for an infection instead of thinking that they have a disease, a term which can feel much scarier and calls to mind difficult or chronic situations. By calling these conditions STIs, the stigma attached to sexually-transmitted diseases can be reduced.
  10. That’s good because they’re common. STDs are really common, with up to 20 million new cases of STDs being reported annually in the US alone, so there’s nothing to feel ashamed of! The important thing is to get tested regularly if you’re sexually active and not wait around for STD symptoms to show because they might not until they’re more difficult to treat and have harmed your health in a bigger, sometimes permanent way. Risking that just isn’t worth it. Most STDs can be successfully treated with a course of antibiotics, especially when they’re caught early. But even STDs that can’t be cured definitely can be managed and controlled.
Giulia Simolo is a writer from Johannesburg, South Africa with a degree in English Language and Literature. She has been working as a journalist for more than a decade, writing for sites including AskMen, Native Interiors, and Live Eco. You can find out more about her on Facebook and LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter @GiuliaSimolo.