When learning about your sexual health and safety, two phrases will often appear on your laptop screen: sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Often they’re used interchangeably, with no regard to one pervasive question: is there really a difference between an STD and an STI? Since April is STD Awareness Month, we decided there’s no better time than now to finally figure out the answer to this question — because we’ve all been wondering.
First of all, let’s get some definitions out of the way: an STD is a sexually transmitted disease and an STI is a sexually transmitted infection, and both can lead to serious medical problems and should be checked out immediately by your physician. But beyond that, are there any real differences? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Here are five facts on whether there’s a difference between STDs and STIs.
1They’re basically the same
Both of the terms STD and STI are used to describe the same symptoms and diseases by a large part of the medical community. The reasoning is partly because of the negative connotations behind STD. An STI doesn’t sound quite as bad when you’re getting the news about your health malady.
Experts say that STI is a modern term that is gradually replacing STD. “The term STI reflects that fact that some people who get infected do not experience symptoms or even develop the disease. Most people who get infected by HPV do not develop cervical cancer. Thus infections is a more accurate term than disease,” Dr. Gil Weiss, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and partner at Association for Women’s Health Care, told Bustle.
2There’s a small but significant difference
Here’s where things get a little more complicated: not all sexually transmitted infections turn into diseases. In fact, many people with an STI don’t even have symptoms; that’s why the term STD isn’t quite accurate in all cases. For example, a woman could carry HPV (human papillomavirus) for years without having a single symptom. They’re still infected, and capable of passing the virus onto others. That being said, most women will never see HPV become something more serious, like cancer.
To put it another way, if your HPV never shows symptoms, it’s an STI. If you begin to have noticeable symptoms, it becomes an STD. Either way, your first stop should be directly to your doctor before you decide on anything yourself.
3STIs are still serious business
The name may have changed but the problem remains the same. STIs, like many STDs, are highly communicable. They can easily be transferred from person to person, and should be dealt with immediately. This doesn’t just mean heading to the doctor when you feel under the weather; as we said earlier, you can have an STI while not experiencing a single symptom. And even if you’re not showing symptoms, you can still pass it on to others.
4That’s why you should get checked regularly
Whether you want to continue calling them STDs or opt to go with the far more accurate label STI, you should still get checked out by your doctor regularly if you’re sexually active. Make sure to be honest and forthright with your doctor — now is not the time to be shy or discrete. By answering all their questions accurately, you’ll give them a clearer picture of your sexual history, which is a key in determining your sexual health.
5The term STI is becoming more popular
While STD has been the common term for ages (and scared a lot of us in high school health classes), it’s gradually being phased out in favor of STI. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this is significantly different when it comes to getting checks, though; you’ll still be trying to protect yourself from the same illnesses for the most part. The most important thing to remember is that one isn’t any less serious than the other, so be sure to guard your sexual health — whatever name these diseases or infections may be going by.