What’s in a Name? Perceptions of the Terms Sexually Transmitted Disease and Sexually Transmitted Infection Among Late Adolescents

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There has been a shift from using the term sexually transmitted disease (STD) to sexually transmitted infection (STI), primarily based on conjecture that STI is less stigmatizing. However, there is a dearth of evidence regarding how the public actually perceives these terms.


Students at a Midwestern university participated in an online survey and were randomized to the open-ended question “What comes to mind when you think of the term sexually transmitted disease (STD)?” (n = 205) or “What comes to mind when you think of the term sexually transmitted infection (STI)?” (n = 208). Conventional content analysis was conducted to identify response themes. Cross tabulations with the χ2 statistic determined the number of participants that endorsed each theme and any differences between the STD and STI responses.


Almost all themes occurred in similar numbers across the STD and STI responses. Overarching themes for both terms were contracted through sex; specific STDs/STIs; severe; negative emotional affect; types of people who get STDs/STIs; physical symptoms; preventable; common; and treatable/curable. However, participants were more likely to mention that STDs were common (P = 0.030) and reported less negative emotional affect for STIs (P = 0.024). Two themes emerged only in the STI group: STDs (P = 0.001) and site of infection (P = 0.003).


With some exceptions, late adolescents have overlapping conceptualizations of the terms STD and STI. The most commonly reported themes revealed likely areas of misinformation. Although language is an important aspect of health communication, more than a terminology change is needed to reduce the stigma associated with STDs/STIs.

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