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Sexually Transmitted Infections

The Terminology Debate


Updated June 25, 2014

Technically, diseases cause symptoms and affect the functioning of the body, which is why many experts believe that sexually transmitted diseases should be called sexually transmitted infections. After all, numerous sexually transmitted infections can remain asymptomatic for years - or even for a lifetime. Therefore, referring to such conditions as sexually transmitted infections, instead of sexually transmitted diseases, is more accurate

However, there are numerous educators and scientists who would argue that the general public is primarily familiar with the terminology of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and that therefore switching to the sexually transmitted infections (STIs) designation is more confusing than useful. One solution that some educators and scientists use is to alternately refer to sexually transmitted infections and sexually transmitted diseases and use the combined abbreviation STD/STI.

Some people argue that the switch in terminology from sexually transmitted disease to sexually transmitted infection is important not just because of accuracy but because it may reduce the stigma associated with infection and transmission. However, my personal feeling is that if the term STD is more associated with stigma than the term STI, it's almost certainly because the people who would stigmatize infected individuals don't know what an STI is. Reducing the stigma by removing comprehension does not actually improve the underlying situation.

The problems associated with reducing stigma by switching from the terminology of STDs to STIs is similar to the problems with reducing the stigma of oral herpes by referring to the lesions the virus causes as "cold sores." Although doing so does reduce the stress associated with infection, many individuals with oral herpes still highly stigmatize genital herpes infections while ignorantly putting their partners at risk of such infections by practicing unprotected oral sex.

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