Many of us have heard about STDs and the importance of regular testing, however, there are so many things we don’t hear about. Let’s go back to the basics, starting with some definitions.
What’s the difference between STDs and STIs?
The terms sexually transmitted disease (STD) and sexually transmitted infection (STI) are often used interchangeably. Yet, there is a difference. Many professionals tend to use STI because it is more accurate. While both refer to a pathogen (bacteria, parasite, or virus) that gets passed from person to person through sexual activity, not everyone with an infection (the presence of a pathogen) develops symptoms. The symptoms that develop and affect the body are a result of an infection, which is referred to as disease. So in short, STIs can be present with or without symptoms.
The most common infections include HPV (human papillomavirus), herpes, syphilis, hepatitis, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Each year, millions of people are infected with STIs, however, many go undiagnosed and therefore untreated because they show no symptoms.
How to get tested
The only way to know for sure if someone has a STI is to be tested. Some infections are difficult to detect because of the tests available. There is no one-for-all test. This means different infections require different kinds of testing, such as a blood test, urine test, or swab test.
Blood tests are often used to detect HIV and syphilis. Urine and swab tests can be used to detect chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. They can also be used to determine if other infections are present such as yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and urinary tract infections, which tend to have symptoms similar to STIs.
Some infections, like HPV and herpes can be suspected based on their symptoms alone. Yet, testing is still required to diagnose and swab tests are often used. Swab tests involve taking a sample of cells from the infection area, which can include the vagina, cervix, penis, anus, and inside or around the mouth.
Treating an STI
Once tested, and if infected, the next step is treatment. Depending on the type of infection, there are various forms of treatment. Some STIs cannot be cured, however, there is treatment available for all infections. The key takeaway is that testing is important to determine if someone has been infected.
Sexually active people are recommended to get tested for STIs at least once a year. For specific recommendations (based on sexual activity and age), speak with a medical professional. Check out free resources, including testing sites. However, if you prefer, you can also pay to have an at-home STI testing kit sent directly to you. So, if you haven’t already, set aside some time to get tested. Remember, sexual health care is self-care.
Ashley TownesPhD, MPH, Sexual Health Researcher
Dr. Townes has experience working as a Community Health Educator and Disease Intervention Specialist in Cincinnati and the surrounding areas. She has worked on several initiatives related to the dissemination of national HIV prevention and care campaign materials tailored for African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, and transgender women of color. Dr. Townes has taught collegiate-level Human Sexuality courses, served as an Epidemiologist at the Ohio Department of Health, and currently works as a sexual health researcher in Atlanta, GA.
Ashley’s research background includes work on the sexual experiences of African American/Black women accessing health information and utilizing sexual health services. In 2018, she received grant funding from the Patty Brisben Foundation for Women’s Sexual Health to translate sexual health research data into educational materials. Her career interests are aimed at providing quality sexual education and working towards health equity.