STI vs. STD? More than a million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired every day around the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 30 different bacteria, viruses, and parasites are known to be transmitted through sexual contact. Eight of them are linked to the greatest percentage of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It is important for women to know how STIs and STDs impact women differently than they impact men. Women who contract STIs and STDs also face many risks that men do not. Women need to know the facts about STIs and STDs and how they are uniquely affected by them.
STI vs. STD
What exactly is the difference: STI vs. STD? The terms STD and STI are often used interchangeably. Technically they are different things. If you have an STI, you have an infection. An infection is often the first step of a disease. Bacteria or viruses enter the body and start multiplying. It is considered a disease when normal body function or structure is then disrupted. Medically speaking, STDs generally start out as STIs.
For example, if a woman has human papillomavirus (HPV), she has a virus. HPV is considered an STI. However, HPV can cause cervical cancer. If that same woman develops cervical cancer, which is a disease, she now has an STD. The same is true for women who have chlamydia or gonorrhea infections that develop into pelvic inflammatory disease.
There is some preference in parts of the medical community to shift from the term STD to STI. Some of the reasoning is because of the negative stigma attached to the term STD. However, others prefer the term STI because the word “disease” implies a medical problem with obvious signs or symptoms. Several common STDs either have no signs or symptoms or have such mild symptoms they are easily overlooked in a majority of people. There is no consensus in the medical community about what is best to call STIs and STDs, so it is not uncommon to read one source that calls something an STI and another that calls it an STD.
When you think STI vs. STD, think infection vs. disease. That is what it normally comes down to. Being diagnosed with an STI vs. STD has nothing to do with whether or not it is curable. Some STIs, like herpes simplex virus or HPV, cannot be cured while others, like syphilis and gonorrhea, can be.
Ways STIs Affect Women Differently
Unfortunately, anatomy can make it easier for an STI to develop in women as opposed to men. The vagina is the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. It is also easier for bacteria and viruses to penetrate the lining of the vagina than the skin on a penis because it is thinner and more delicate. Women may also not see symptoms as easily as men because of anatomy. Genital ulcers caused by herpes or syphilis can occur inside the vagina and may not be visible, while men are likely to notice sores on their penis.
Symptoms of STIs and STDs are often easier to overlook or are more often nonexistent in women than in men. Women are less likely to have symptoms of common STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea as compared to men. When symptoms do occur, they often go away even though the STI remains.
When women do have symptoms they are more likely to confuse them for something else. For instance, women often have normal discharge. It is therefore easy to write off discharge caused by an STI as normal. Or women may think that burning or itching is being caused by a yeast infection rather than an STI. Most men on the other hand notice symptoms like discharge or burning and itching because it is unusual.
STI and STD Risks Unique to Women
STIs and STDs can lead to serious health complications in both men and women; however, women face the possibility of future fertility issues because of STIs and STDs. Untreated STIs can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can then result in ectopic pregnancy or even infertility.
HPV is the most common STI in women and is the main cause of cervical cancer. While HPV is also common in men, it is less common for men to develop serious health problems from it.
Pregnant women are also at risk of passing on many STIs and STDs to their unborn babies. Genital herpes, syphilis, and HIV can be passed to babies during pregnancy or during delivery. Some of the harmful effects of STIs and STDs in babies include low birth weight, brain damage, blindness or deafness, and stillbirth.
It is important to know the facts. Knowing if you have an STI vs STD and the difference is important. It is also important for women not to ignore symptoms that are not quite normal and to avoid self-diagnosing problems. The good news is that women typically see their doctors more often than men. Women should use time with their doctors as an opportunity to ask about STI and STD testing and not assume it is part of their annual exam. The other good news is that there is a vaccine available to prevent HPV. There are also treatments available for other STIs that can prevent serious complications such as infertility when diagnosed and treated early.
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Sources: Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), STI vs. STD, STDs/STIs, 10 Ways STDs Impact Women Differently from Men