Background: Recently, there has been an increase in the use of the term sexually transmitted infection (STI) instead of disease (STD). Although many clinicians use these terms interchangeably, some use the terms to differentiate between illnesses based on illness characteristics (e.g., curability). Little is known about how the patient population interprets these terms. Effective communication between patient and provider is vital to quality sexual health care delivery. The aim of our study was to describe young adults understanding of the terms STD and STI.
Methods: In this cross-sectional study, we randomly selected young adults from a Midwestern University. Participants completed an online survey anonymously. They indicated whether the terms STD and STI were interchangeable and justified their response in their own words. Descriptive statistics and chi-squared tests assessed whether responses differed by screening history, gender, and age. Content analysis was conducted on the open-ended responses.
Results: Of the 187 participants (67% female), 43% (n=81) believed that the terms STD and STI were interchangeable, 17% (n = 32) differentiated between the terms and 40% (n=74) were unsure of whether the terms were interchangeable. All chi-squared tests were non-significant. Those who believed the terms were interchangeable believed that the term STI is used to reduce stigma. Those who differentiated between the terms believed that STDs were more serious, chronic and differed in terms of transmission and symptomatology from STIs.
Conclusions: Many young adults are unsure about the use and meaning of the terms STD and STI. For some, the term STI is viewed as less stigmatizing, and references illnesses that are less serious and more manageable. Clinicians should clarify their use of this terminology with their patients. Future research should examine the effects of clinicians’ use of the term STI (vs. STD) on patients’ perceived stigma and manageability of an STD diagnosis.