The More You Know: What's The Difference Between STIs and STDs?

While sharing germs and diseases don't sound sexy at first blush, well, that's because it's not. Sex has the potential to be wildly hot, supremely fulfilling, and a meaningful way to connect with a person you care about. Understanding how diseases can be shared through sex and how to prevent them empowers you to approach all your sexy encounters safely. 

And that leaves you free to focus on all the best parts of your romp — not worried about an unintended consequence.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are common and impact millions of Americans each year. These two categories are similar and related, but they are different and are caused by many other germs.

differences between sti and std

Being a responsible sexual partner understands what STIs and STDs are and how to avoid contracting or sharing them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five people in the United States had an STI in 2018 — that's around 68 million infections. 

The same analysis from the CDC also revealed that:

  • There were 26 million new STIs in 2018.
  • Almost half the new infections were among people aged 15 to 24.
  • STIs cost over $16 billion in direct medical costs each year.

What's the Difference Between an STI and an STD?

One key difference between these two is that an STI (infection) is only considered an STD (disease) when it starts causing symptoms. 

So why are both of these terms in use? First, the term STD is pretty loaded — years of fear-based sex education and stigma can trigger a shame-based or adverse reaction in many people. And for many cases, STI is more accurate. Many people can have an infection with few to no symptoms and are easily preventable and resolvable with proper medical care. 

Infection can turn into a disease, but not the other way around. In other words, all STDs start as STIs, but not all STIs become STDs. Got it, right? 

Here's an example: When a person becomes infected with a pathogen like chlamydia, syphilis, HPV, or gonorrhea, the infection can be in their body — and can be shared with a sexual partner — without their knowledge. They may not show any outward symptoms of the condition, but a test would reveal that they have it. At this point, it would be considered an STI. 

Once that person starts showing symptoms due to the infection (sores, discomfort, discharge, etc.), it's considered an STD — a disease. 

What Are the Symptoms of an STI?

Trick question, huh? An STI — by definition — doesn't show any symptoms.

So What Are the Symptoms of an STD?

Because there's a wide variety of STIs and STDs, numerous symptoms indicate you should make an appointment with a medical professional. Some of those symptoms can include:

  • Sores or bumps around your genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Pain or burning when you urinate
  • Discharge from your penis
  • Unusual or bad-smelling discharge from your vagina
  • Unexpected or unusual bleeding from your genitals or anus
  • Pain during sex
  • Sore, swollen lymph nodes (especially those in your groin)
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Rash on your hands, feet, or core

What Infections and Diseases Are Transmitted by Sex?

STIs and STDs

The list of diseases and infections that are considered STDs and STIs is lengthy and includes:

  • HIV/AIDS
  • Hepatitis
  • Chancroid
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Human papillomavirus and genital warts
  • Herpes
  • Gonorrhea
  • Chlamydia
  • Bacterial vaginosis
  • Syphilis
  • Scabies
  • Pubic lice ("crabs")
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Mucopurulent cervicitis

Each year, untreated STIs are thought to cause infertility in more than 24,000 American uterus owners. Some studies indicate that up to half of the sexually active people will contract an STI or STD before 25. 

But the news isn't all bad: These infections are avoidable, many are manageable, and some are entirely curable. 

When Should You Get Tested?

Testing for STIs and STDs can help you detect an infection early — making it easier to treat — and can help you avoid sharing it with a sexual partner. Here's when you should get tested for an STI or STD:

Before having sex with a new partner, each STI has its incubation period or length of time before it will cause a positive test result. Some areas are as short as a few days, and others are as long as a month. If you're considered high risk — if you have lots of partners, for example — you should schedule monthly testing. Otherwise, be sure to test before having sexual contact with a new partner. To be extra safe, have protected sex from preventing transmission of any germs. 

If you have been exposed, if you've had sexual contact with a partner in the last 60 days who has tested positive for an STI or STD, get tried to find out whether it was shared with you. 

If you're worried about symptoms. If you're experiencing symptoms like those listed above, or feel that something isn't right, talk to a medical professional. 

Many locations offer discounted or even free testing and screening for STIs and STDs. There's virtually zero risk or drawbacks to getting tested and being confident that you're STI-free. Investing in your health and that of your partners is priceless.

What Happens If I Test Positive for an STI or STD?

First, don't panic or beat yourself up. Having an STI or STD doesn't mean you are dirty or have anything to be ashamed of. See above: These are very common and manageable. Some are curable — meaning treatment can eliminate them — and the rest are treatable, meaning that reliable treatments can help you manage any symptoms long-term.

Second, have a thorough conversation with your medical provider about the next steps. A doctor can help you explore your options for treatment and let you know what further testing might be necessary. 

You'll need to tell your recent and current partner(s) about your positive diagnosis so they can follow the same steps. It can be emotional and feel challenging, but it's essential. If you need support during this process, that's OK. You can enlist a trusted friend or family member to help or ask your doctor for a recommendation for mental health professional to support you as well.

Finally, follow your doctor's directions on when it's safe to resume sexual activity without risking exposure to your partner(s). Use protection, and test until everyone comes back negative.  

In the End...

using condoms minimize the risk of STI

One of the best ways to protect yourself from contracting an STI or developing an STD is to be aware of the risks and ways to keep yourself safe. No in-person sexual contact is entirely risk-free, but using condoms or other protection can minimize your risk. Even then, be sure that you have an open and honest conversation with your partner about your testing status and recent results.

If you're not sure, it's always a good idea to check with your doctor. There's zero shame in getting tested. Taking steps to make sure that you and your partner are as safe as possible so you can focus on the pleasure at hand is super hot.

References:

 Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States. (January 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

 The One Difference Between STIs and STDs — and How to Minimize Your Risk. (September 2020.) Healthline.

 Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). (October 2019). Mayo Clinic.

 STDs. (January 2021). BeforePlay.org.

 How long does it take for STD symptoms to show? (September 2020). Medical News Today.

 Your Guide to Dealing with a Positive STI Diagnosis. (December 2019). Shape.

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