As a peer educator, it is part of my job to keep up with new sexual health terminology.
A few years ago the term STI (sexually transmitted infection), popped up onto the health education scene and began to replace the previously used term, STD (sexually transmitted disease). As an educator, I was encouraged to use STI instead of STD when talking about sexual health. But why? What is the big difference between an infection and a disease?
The terms STD and STI have been used interchangeably by the medical and public health communities for years now, however many are now viewing the term STD as problematic. This is because diseases can be infections but infections are not always diseases. Certain sexually transmitted infections are capable of turning into diseases if they go untreated, but many of them never reach that point. Traditionally, when someone contracts a disease, they display a set of distinct symptoms related to the disease. Contrary to what many people believe, when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases (or infections), the most common symptom is no symptom at all.
The word disease also has a heavy stigma around it. Disease implies that there’s no cure or that its effects would be permanent and painful. However the majority of STDs are treatable, and by using the term infection rather than disease, public health professionals are hoping that the conversation about sexual health will become easier for young adults to engage in.
It’s important to always be clear with what kind you’re talking about whether you decide to use STI or STD. When language and terminology begin to change, there will always be a learning curve and the chances are that whoever you’re talking to, whether it’s your doctor or your friends, may not have the same definition of STD or STI that you do. Be specific so there’s no chance of confusion, and don’t be afraid to ask specifics, especially if you’re getting tested or communicating with a sexual partner.
Although encouraging people to switch to STI is important, STD is a term that has been around for a long time and is still used by many in the medical and public health fields. While it’s not necessarily wrong to use the two terms interchangeably, using language that encourages conversation rather than creating fear will be more effective in creating a culture where safer sex is the norm.