STIs vs. STDs
Often confused, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are not actually the same thing. An infection —which is when bacteria, viruses, or parasites attack the body —comes precedes a disease. And while an infection might result in zero symptoms, a disease generally always comes with clear signs.
Think of it this way: An STD will always begin as an STI. But not all STIs transform into STDs. Now you know the difference between the two, here is the lowdown on the types of STDs that currently exist, how to treat them, and, most importantly, how to prevent them.
If an STD starts with a symptomatic STI, you may first experience:
- Pain or uncomfortableness during sexual activity or urination
- Sores, bumps, or rashes in or around the vagina, penis, testicles, anus, buttocks, thighs, or mouth
- Unusual discharge or bleeding from the penis or the vagina
- Painful or swollen testicles
- Itchiness in or around the vagina
- Unexpected periods or bleeding after sexual activity
But keep in mind that not all STIs have symptoms.
If an STI progresses to an STD, symptoms could vary. Some of them may be similar to the above, like pain during sexual activity, pain during urination, and irregular or painful periods.
But other symptoms could be quite different and depend on the STD. They could include:
- Recurring pain
- Memory loss
- Changes to vision or hearing
- Weight loss
- Lumps or swellings
Underlying STD causes
All STDs result from an STI. These infections are generally transmitted through sexual contact, bodily fluids, or skin contact through vaginal, oral, and anal sex.
Some of them never become a disease, especially if they’re treated, and they could even go away on their own.
But if the pathogens that caused the infection to end up damaging cells in the body and disrupting its functions, an STI will progress towards an STD.
Types of STDs
While the list of STIs is quite lengthy, there are fewer STDs.
They range from pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), caused by STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, to some forms of cancer, caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).
Below are the major STDs to be aware of.
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis are common STIs that could lead to PID if left untreated.
But not all cases of PID are caused by an STI, as other bacterial infections could play a role.
Around 2.5 million women in the United States have a reported lifetime history of being diagnosed with PID, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although this infection of the female reproductive organs is classified as a disease, some people have no symptoms at all.
Those who do have symptoms might experience:
- Pelvic or lower abdominal pain
- Pain during penetrative vaginal sex or while urinating
- Irregular, heavy, or painful vaginal bleeding
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- High temperature
Antibiotics could successfully treat PID if it is diagnosed early enough. However, they would not treat any scarring on the fallopian tubes that may have occurred.
This scarring could make an ectopic pregnancy more likely and has also been linked to infertility, with around 1 in 10 people with PID becoming infertile as a result.
The early stages of syphilis —a relatively unusual infection — are considered an STI.
The infection initially appears as one or more small round sores on the genitals, anus, or mouth. If not treated, syphilis will move to the latent phase, which has no symptoms.
However, around a quarter of people will go on to develop tertiary syphilis from here —a process that could take between 10 and 30 years after the initial infection.
This disease can have severe consequences for several organ systems in the body, leading to:
- Loss of vision
- Loss of hearing
- Memory loss
- Mental health conditions
- Infections of the brain or spinal cord
- Heart disease
The sooner syphilis is diagnosed and treated, the less damage it does.
While penicillin injections are typically used to treat tertiary syphilis and remove the bacteria from the body, they cannot reverse any damage that is already occurred.
Of course, if the disease causes problems with major organs, such as the heart, other medications and procedures may be required.
Although some strains of HPV tend to cause no disease, other strains could cause abnormal cell changes.
This could lead to cancer, including:
- Oral cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Penile cancer
- Anal cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, most cases of HPV-associated cancer in the United States are caused by HPV 16 and HPV 18.
HPV causes almost all cervical cancers, as well as over 90 percent of anal cancers, 75 percent of vaginal cancers, and over 60 percent of penile cancers.
Symptoms of these cancers differ, depending on where in the body they affect. Swellings and lumps, bleeding, and pain could be common.
If cancer is diagnosed early, it is often easier to treat with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery.
Some screening tests are used to detect pre-cancerous cell changes caused by HPV.
Some lower-risk strains of HPV could cause a disease known as genital warts.
These skin-colored or white bumps appear on the genitals or anus, with over 350,000 people developing them every year.
They are treatable, but not curable, as the virus that causes them might remain. (In certain cases, HPV disappears on its own.)
Genital warts could also go away by themselves, but they can also come back.
If you want to get them removed, the options range from freezing or burning them off to applying a chemical cream or liquid.
HIV could damage the immune system and increase the risk of contracting other viruses or bacteria and developing certain cancers.
With today’s treatments, many people with HIV live long and healthy lives.
But if left untreated, the virus can lead to AIDS, where the body becomes vulnerable to severe infections and illnesses.
People with AIDS might experience:
- Rapid weight loss
- Extreme fatigue
- Neurologic disorders
There is no cure for AIDS. And due to the variety of diseases that could be contracted as a result of a severely weakened immune system, life expectancy without treatment is around 3 years.
STDs and pregnancy
Some STIs could be transmitted to a fetus during pregnancy or a newborn during childbirth. But this is not the case for all STDs.
Syphilis can be passed to an unborn baby, resulting in severe infection, miscarriage, or stillbirth.
Genital warts could also pass to a baby, but it is extremely rare.
PID could affect future pregnancies, making an ectopic pregnancy more likely and causing infertility in 1 in 10 people.
Here’s what else to consider if you are pregnant:
- Get screened for STIs, including HIV and syphilis, to avoid complications by ensuring any infection could be detected and treated.
- Speak to a healthcare professional if you have an STD. They might need to check that a medication is safe for you to use or delay treatment where necessary.
- Note that a cesarean delivery might be needed —particularly if genital warts make it difficult for the vagina to stretch.
It is hard for healthcare professionals to diagnose an STD based on symptoms alone, so they will need to do some tests and examinations.
Depending on the suspected STD, this might involve:
- Physical examinations
- Swabs of bodily fluids
- Blood tests
- Specialist procedures, like keyhole surgery or a colposcopy
STD treatment options
STDs could have varied effects on the body. There are a number of treatment options, depending upon the condition, including:
- Other oral or topical medications
You might also be advised to make lifestyle alterations, like abstaining from sex until treatment is complete.
Remember that, with most STDs, it is not possible to undo any damage that the disease has already caused. And some STDs, like genital warts and AIDS, are not curable.
Tips for STD prevention
The best way to stay away from an STD is to prevent STIs. And the only foolproof way to do that is to stay away from sexual contact.
But there are ways to make sex safer and lower the risk of contracting an STI:
- Have an open discussion about sexual history with a new partner before engaging in any sexual activity, and decide what you are each comfortable with.
- Get tested regularly for STIs, particularly if you have a new partner or multiple partners. Ask for partners to do the same.
- Use a condom properly during vaginal, anal, and oral sex to help prevent STIs that spread via fluids. Dental dams could also provide protection during oral sex.
- Consider getting vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis B.
- If you are at a higher risk of contracting HIV, think about taking PrEP medication every day.
The bottom line
Numerous STDs are treatable, but not all of them are curable. Some could be life-threatening, while others have less severe effects.
These are, however, all caused by an STI. Therefore, the best way to prevent them is to get regularly screened and practice safer sex.
And if you test positive for any STI, look for treatment as soon as possible.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from the effects of sexually transmitted diseases, our expert providers at Vegas Health will take care of your health and help you recover.
Call us at (701)-551-5212 to book an appointment with our specialists.