How to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
In general, sexually transmitted infections are highly preventable. The only method guaranteed to prevent STIs is to avoid any kind of sexual contact, but this is not practical for most people. There are things you can do to limit the risk of exposure to infections while still enjoying an active sex life.
The best way to avoid most STIs is to use a condom when you have sex. There are some other things you can do to reduce the chances of catching an STI. These include:
- limiting the number of people you have sex with
- talking honestly with potential partners about your sexual history
- getting tested, along with your partner, before having sex
- avoiding sex when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. People who are drunk or using drugs often fail to have safe sex
- when appropriate, getting vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B (HBV)
The only time unprotected sex is completely safe from infection with chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HIV or syphilis is if you and your partner have sex only with each other, and each of you tested negative for these STIs at least three months after you had sex with any other partners.
Otherwise you should take the following precautions.
Use condoms when you have sex
Use condoms every time you have sex. If you use a lubricant, make sure it's water-based (lubricants which are not water-based might damage the condom). You should wear a condom throughout sex.
Condoms are not 100% guaranteed to prevent disease or pregnancy, but they are extremely effective if used properly, so learn how to do this.
- Checking the expiry date on the condom
- Make sure the condom's packaging has not been punctured
- Follow the instructions to make sure you put the condom on correctly
- Always leave room at the tip of the condom
- Unroll the condom onto the penis. Don't try to unroll it before putting it on
- Use a condom-safe lubricant during intercourse (look for water-based lubricants to avoid damaging the condom)
- Hold the base of the condom when withdrawing after sex, so that it doesn’t slip off
- Dispose of the condom properly
- Never remove a condom and put it on again
- Never reuse a condom. Use a new condom each time you have sex
Use condoms or dental dams during oral sex
A dental dam is a rectangular piece of latex that can be used to cover the genitals or anus during oral sex.
Using a condom or dental dam during oral sex stops the mouth from coming into direct contact with the genitals or anus. This can prevent the spread of STIs which can be passed via the mouth.
Avoid sexual contact if you think you or your partner(s) have an STI
Always avoid sex with anyone who has genital sores, a rash, discharge or other potential symptoms of an STI.
To prevent giving an STI to someone else if you suspect you may have one:
- stop having sex until you see a doctor and are treated
- follow your doctor's instructions for treatment
- use condoms whenever you have sex, especially with new partners
- don't resume having sex unless your doctor has given you the all-clear
- return to your doctor to get rechecked if advised
- be sure your partner or partners are also treated
Avoid other types of contact
Condoms and other barriers, including dental dams, are very good at preventing the exchange of infected bodily fluids. They can also help to minimise skin-to-skin contact. This reduces the transmission of diseases that spread from skin to skin. However, they doesn’t prevent transmission entirely. STIs that spread through skin-to-skin contact include:
- genital warts
Avoid sharing towels or underclothing.
You can also catch scabies and public lice through skin-to-skin contact or sharing towels, bedding and clothing.
Though STIs are common, there are ways to reduce your risk and make sex safer. If you are unsure about the right method for you, talk to your partner, your GP or your local Umbrella service provider. Being honest about your sexual practices with your medical advisors can help them to help you reduce the risk of catching an STI. Safer sex is for everyone, because everyone who is sexually active is potentially at risk.
See the FPA website for a range of downloadable leaflets on contraception and sexually transmitted infections.