How to prevent STDs
Table of Contents
- Written by Dr. Patricia Shelton on February 15, 2022
If you’re sexually active outside of a mutually monogamous relationship, then it’s important to educate yourself about STD safety. There are steps that you can take to prevent STDs. Unfortunately, some people have heard incorrect information about STD prevention. Having accurate information is vital to help you stay safe.
Do condoms stop STDs? Does washing the genitals after sex prevent them? How likely is it that you’ll get exposed to an STD? Knowing how to protect yourself from STDs allows you to have a sex life that’s safe as well as enjoyable.
How can you protect yourself from STDs?
The only absolutely foolproof way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is not to have sex at all. This will ensure that you never get exposed to an STD. However, studies have shown that people very commonly don’t stick with a decision to remain abstinent, even when they’re aware of the risks of STDs. In addition, sex is an important part of many people’s lives, especially in their romantic partnerships, and they often don’t want to avoid it. It’s crucial to have accurate information to help you protect yourself from STDs, in case you decide to have sex.
If you’re sexually active, then there’s no question that the best way to protect yourself from STDs is to use condoms every time you have sex. This includes any type of sex, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In order for it to be effective at preventing STD transmission, it’s important that the condom is put on before one partner’s genitals touch the other partner’s genitals, anus, or mouth.
What’s the chance of an STD without a condom?
According to the CDC, on any given day, about 1 in 5 people in the US have a sexually transmitted infection. This means that if you have a new partner, there’s about a 20% chance that you’ll be exposed to an STD.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that your chances of getting an STD are 20%, however. Not every act of unprotected sex results in transmission of an STD, even if one partner is infected. For example, the risk of chlamydia being transmitted from an infected person to their partner is around 20 to 30%. You can decrease your chances of getting an STD by using condoms, and you should absolutely use a condom every time you have sex. However, you will not necessarily get an STD from every unprotected sex act.
If you’re concerned that you might have been exposed to an STD, then you should seek testing in order to determine whether you’re infected. Sexual health clinics are one option. Some people prefer the convenience of home testing for STDs. Many of these services can also prescribe treatment if it turns out that you do have an STD.
Can you get an STD from protected sex?
Although it’s absolutely true that condoms prevent STDs, this doesn’t mean that the chance of getting an STD with a condom is zero. There are two main reasons for this. One is that some STDs can be transmitted by areas that aren’t covered by the condom. If a herpes sore or a syphilis chancre (the open sore that occurs early in the course of syphilis) is in an area where it’s not covered by the condom, then the disease can be transmitted to a partner, because these diseases spread through direct contact. Condoms also don’t always prevent HPV, because it can be transmitted by the skin that isn’t covered by the condom. For other STDs, condoms are highly effective.
Another reason is that condoms don’t always work as they’re intended to. Condoms sometimes break, tear, or leak, which can lead to STD exposure. To help ensure that condoms work properly, it’s important to store them correctly. The latex in condoms is weakened by exposure to heat, including body heat. Storing condoms in your pocket (even if they’re inside of your wallet) exposes them to your body heat. When used, they may develop microscopic tears or holes, and can leak. Even if the holes are too small for you to see, viruses and bacteria might be able to get through them. Instead of a pocket, keep your condoms in a nightstand, purse, bag, or another place that’s not exposed to body heat.
It’s also crucial to use the right lubricant with condoms. Oil-based lubricants (such as petroleum jelly or massage oil) can weaken latex and leave it vulnerable to breaking. Choose a water-based or silicone-based lubricant instead. In general, it’s a good idea to use lubrication, because excessive friction can also tear condoms during sex.
Can you prevent an STD after exposure?
If you’re seeking to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, then the best way is to avoid being exposed to them. For most STDs, there is no effective way to prevent the disease after unprotected sex has already occurred.
Unfortunately, there are some incorrect rumors about the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. Some people believe that douching will help to prevent STDs after intercourse, but this is not true. In fact, douching after sex can actually increase the risk of certain STDs, by causing irritation to the tissues of the vagina. Washing the genitals or urinating after sex are also not effective ways to avoid STDs, and will do nothing to prevent them.
If you’ve been exposed to HIV, then taking HIV medication may help to decrease the chances that the virus will get established in your body and become a lifelong infection. This is known as post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP. If you’ve had a known or suspected exposure to HIV, then it’s important to visit a healthcare provider right away, so that you can be evaluated. PEP must be started within 72 hours to be effective, and ideally within 2 hours. You then continue taking the medication for 28 days. PEP is only intended for use in emergency situations (for example, if a condom breaks during sex), and should not be considered a routine method to prevent HIV. It’s not perfect, but can decrease the chances of ending up with a lifelong HIV infection by up to 80%.
Which STDs can be prevented by a vaccine?
There are vaccines available that can protect you against certain STDs, including HPV and hepatitis B. Both of these vaccines are now a standard part of the childhood vaccination schedule. The hepatitis B vaccine has been used since 1981, and so most adults have had it. If for some reason you haven’t gotten this vaccine, it’s recommended for many adults.
The HPV vaccine was first licensed for use in 2006, and so if you’re in your late 20s to 30s or older, you might not have gotten it. However, it’s not always recommended for those over age 26. If you haven’t gotten the HPV and hepatitis B vaccines, talk with your doctor to see whether you should consider getting vaccinated to protect yourself from these STDs.
CDC estimates 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a sexually transmitted infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/p0125-sexualy-transmitted-infection.html. Accessed 14 Feb 2022.
Condom Fact Sheet in Brief. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/brief.html. Accessed 14 Feb 2022.
Lewis JL, White PJ, et al. Per-partnership transmission probabilities for Chlamydia trachomatis infection: evidence synthesis of population-based survey data. Int J Epidemiol 2021 May 17;50(2):510-517. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyaa202.
Marfatia YS, Jose SK, et al. Pre- and post-sexual exposure prophylaxis of HIV: An update. Indian J Sex Transm Dis AIDS Jan-Jun 2017;38(1):1-9. doi: 10.4103/ijstd.IJSTD_26_17.
Post-Exposure Prophylaxis. US Department of Health and Human Services (2021). https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/hiv-prevention/using-hiv-medication-to-reduce-risk/post-exposure-prophylaxis. Accessed 14 Feb 2022.
Santelli JS, Kantor LM, et al. Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact. J Adolesc Health 2017 Sep;61(3):273-280. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.05.031.
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