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The lowdown on STDs…or is it STIs?

August 27, 2019 • read

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The lowdown on STDs…or is it STIs?

Whatever the sex ed curriculum where you live, we’ve all (hopefully) managed to get the basics. Most Canadians are clear on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. What’s less clear is the terminology we’re supposed to be using. At some point in the last few years, we’ve all started talking about STIs instead of STDs. What exactly is the difference between STI and STD, or is there even one?

What’s the difference between an STI and an STD?

While most organizations use the terms interchangeably (including us), there are a few who make a distinction between them. The basis for their argument is that STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) are not the same thing because diseases and infections are not the same thing. Infection is when microorganisms that don’t normally live in the body, get into the body and start to multiply. You might have symptoms from an infection, but you might also be symptom free. Disease, however, is when the cells in your body are damaged from the infection — causing symptoms. Take HIV/AIDS for example. HIV is an infection that may or may not have symptoms. AIDS however, is a disease (resulting from an HIV infection), that most definitely has symptoms.

The major reason for the change is that the term “disease” suggests obvious symptoms, but many STIs don’t have any. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) for example, goes largely undetected unless you present with an abnormal Pap smear, genital warts, or cervical cancer. The idea of “disease,” can also be stigmatizing while “infection” might seem easier to treat to some. While neither sound great, at least we’re not calling them “venereal diseases” anymore.

STI symptoms

While some STIs may be entirely asymptomatic, others can have mild symptoms or take a while for overt ones to develop. This means it’s not always obvious that you have an infection. Despite this, be on the lookout for the following signs:

  • Painful urinating
  • Irregular discharge from the penis or vagina
  • Itchiness in the genital area
  • Pain during sex
  • Sores or warts near your mouth, anus or genitals

Protecting yourself from STDs

While there are a few different options for birth control, the vast majority offer no protection against STD infection. Hormone-based contraception like the pill or the patch are effective only in preventing pregnancy, as are certain barrier methods such as the diaphragm. While vaccines protect against specific STIs (HPV for example), they don’t keep you safe from other ones. Partners usually spread sexually transmitted diseases through bodily fluids such as semen and blood, making condoms the only consistently effective method.

Protection not guaranteed

Even using condoms, however, doesn’t protect you 100 percent, which means you can still get and transmit certain conditions. Herpes, for example, can pass from partner to partner through kissing, touching the affected area, and sharing personal hygiene products such as lip balm. And even without symptoms, you can still spread STDs to others. 

Other conditions we commonly worry about, such as pubic lice, are also highly transmissible through intimate contact, irrespective of condom use and despite not even being an STD! This is why it’s so important to get regular medical check-ups and pay attention to any unusual symptoms — in both yourself and your partner.

So all this to say you can stop scratching your head and wondering, “is it STD or STI?” The answer is that they’re basically the same thing. Both conditions are the result of sexual contact, and most organizations use the terms interchangeably, including the Government of Canada. While some may argue that they’re not the same, there’s no consensus across the board. So use whichever you prefer, everyone knows what you mean.

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