Smashing the stigma around STIs

April is STI Awareness Month, a time to spread knowledge and reduce the stigma surrounding sexual health. In the US alone, 1 in 5 people currently has an STI, making it crucial to understand how to prevent them, get tested, and seek treatment.


Are STIs and STDs the same thing? 

The terms “STD” (sexually transmitted disease) and “STI” (sexually transmitted infection) have subtle differences in meaning, although people often use them interchangeably. STDs are infections that have evolved into diseases. At the same time, STIs include bacteria, viruses, or parasites that may not develop into symptomatic diseases. You will commonly hear health providers and educators using STIs as it is more current and accurate. “Infection” is considered less stigmatizing and more precise than “disease.” It’s also worth noting that not all infections have symptoms or progress into diseases. However, they can still have serious health consequences whether or not symptoms are present, making regular testing important for sexually active individuals.


How many different types of STIs are there? 

There are more than 30 different types of bacterial, viral, and parasitic STIs.

Examples of commonly contracted bacterial STIs include gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia. Commonly contracted parasitic infections include trichomoniasis and pubic lice. These are all treatable with antibiotics.

The most commonly contracted viral STI is HPV (Human papillomavirus). According to the CDC, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point. In most cases (9 out of 10), HPV will go away on its own, but in cases where HPV does not go away on its own, it can cause health problems like genital warts and, in some cases, cancer. Regular pap smears and the HPV vaccine (for boys and girls) are essential in helping to prevent severe cases of HPV infections. 

Some other types of viral STIs are HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis (A, B, C), and herpes. Antiviral medicines can prevent or shorten outbreaks of HIV/AIDS and herpes but are not curable. Antiviral medications also can reduce the chance of spreading it to others. 

Hepatitis, which affects your liver function, has five different strains. Strains A, B, and C can all be transmitted sexually. Strain A and B have vaccines available, and C can be cured 95% of the time, depending on the severity of the infection. Antiviral medication will help prevent the virus from progressing and causing further damage to your liver. 

How is an STI contracted?

The most common modes of transmission are vaginal, oral, or anal sex. However, genital skin-to-skin contact can also transmit STIs like herpes and HPV, especially when warts or sores are present around the pubic area. Additionally, pregnant individuals can pass on some STIs to their babies during pregnancy or childbirth. Other ways to transmit many STIs can occur through breastfeeding, blood transfusions, or sharing needles.


Here are a few ways to start the conversation.

“I have never been tested for STIs; should I be?”
“How do I know if I should be tested for STIs?” 
“I’d like to be tested for STIs; what do you recommend?”

Be open and honest with them about your history, including how many sexual partners you’ve had, if any of your partners have ever tested positive for an STI, and how often you use barrier protection. You can get tested for most STIs whether or not you have any symptoms. Some STIs look and act alike, so you might need to be tested for multiple infections.

STI testing methods vary depending on the type of infection and are all generally painless. Some STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, can be detected through a simple urine test. Other STIs, such as HIV and syphilis, require a blood test. Your provider will take a swab of a genital sore to test for herpes. 


How can I prevent STIs?

To prevent STIs, regular testing and the use of barrier devices like condoms and dental dams during sexual contact are recommended. Testing every three to six months is recommended for sexually active individuals, not in monogamous relationships. It’s also important for sexual partners to get tested and communicate about their status to prevent the spread of STIs.


Where can I get tested?

There are several places where you can find STI testing. If you want free birth control services through A Step Ahead Chattanooga and live or go to school in our 18-county service area, you can request STI testing as part of your birth control visit; ask the healthcare provider when you go for your scheduled visit. To make an appointment, give us a call at 423-265-7837. If you are looking for a nearby clinic to get tested, check out this helpful tool from the CDC


How does STI testing work? And how do I know which STIs to get tested for?

There’s not a single test for all STIs. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out which tests you need. Consider your sexual history and potential exposure to STIs to determine which STIs you should get tests for.

Being nervous about starting the conversation with your healthcare provider is normal. It’s important to remember first that STI testing is a routine part of sexual health care and is nothing to be ashamed of. Your doctor is there to help you care for your health and will be happy to discuss your concerns and recommend appropriate testing.


Why is there such a stigma around STIs?

Many people believe that STIs result from promiscuous behavior, leading to a perception that those with STIs are somehow “dirty.” This stigma can have serious consequences, including a reluctance to seek testing and treatment and feelings of isolation, shame, and anxiety.

STIs can affect anyone sexually active, regardless of their sexual history or behavior.  To combat stigma around STIs, educating ourselves and others about the facts and realities of STIs will help to promote a culture of openness, acceptance, and support around sexual health. 

We can all do our part to reduce the stigma around STIs by reframing the conversation around sexual health and promoting a message of inclusivity and compassion.

Where can I educate myself further about STIs?

We offer a variety of educational sessions tailored to your specific needs. If you are located in our service area and are interested in speaking with one of our health educators or interested in an educational session about STIs, please email us at