Safer Sex


Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are diseases spread by sexual contact. This includes vaginal, oral, and anal sex. If you're pregnant, you can also spread them to your baby before or during the birth.

There are at least 20 different STIs. They include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). (This is the virus that causes AIDS.) Some STIs can reduce the chance of getting pregnant in the future.

Treatment can cure STIs caused by bacteria. STIs caused by viruses, such as HIV, can be treated, but they can't be cured.

Preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be spread by people who don't know they are infected. But there are things you can do to prevent STIs.

  • Avoid sexual contact completely (abstinence), including intercourse and oral sex.

    Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent an infection.

  • Practice safer sex.

    If you are in a relationship, you can wait to have sex until you are physically and emotionally prepared. Make sure that you both have agreed to only have sex with each and that you've both been tested for STIs.

Talking about STIs and safer sex

Even though a sex partner doesn't have symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), they may still be infected. Before you have sex with someone, it's a good idea to discuss STIs.

Questions to ask someone before having sex include:

  • How many people have you had sex with?
  • Have you had sex without a condom?
  • Have you ever had unprotected oral sex?
  • Have you had more than one sex partner at a time?
  • Do you inject illegal drugs, or have you had sex with someone who injects drugs?
  • Have you ever had unprotected sex with a prostitute?
  • Have you had a test for HIV? What were the results?
  • Have you ever had an STI, including hepatitis B or hepatitis C? Was it treated and cured?

Practicing safer sex

Some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV (which causes AIDS), can take up to 6 months before they can be found in the blood. Genital herpes and the human papillomavirus (HPV) can be spread even when there are no symptoms. But there are things you can do to have safer sex and help protect yourself from STIs.

  • Use condoms.

    A condom is the best way to protect yourself from STIs. Latex and polyurethane condoms don't let STI viruses pass through, so they offer good protection from STIs. Condoms made from sheep intestines don't protect against STIs. Even if you and your partner have been tested, use condoms for all sex until you and your partner haven't had sex with another person for 6 months. Then get tested again.

  • Watch for symptoms of STIs.

    Symptoms can include unusual discharge, sores, redness, or growths in your or your partner's genital area, or pain while urinating. STIs may cause many different symptoms in both women and men.

  • Have only one sex partner at a time.

    The safest sex is with one partner who has sex only with you. Every time you add a new sex partner, you are being exposed to all of the diseases that all of their partners may have. Your risk for an STI is higher if you have several sex partners at the same time.

  • Use a water-based lubricant.

    If there's a lack of lubrication during intercourse, lubricants like K-Y Jelly or Astroglide can help prevent tearing of the skin. Small tears in the vagina during vaginal sex or in the rectum during anal sex allow STI bacteria or viruses to get into your blood.

  • Don't douche.

    Douching can change the normal balance of organisms in the vagina and increases the risk of getting an STI.

  • Use a mouth barrier if you have oral sex.

    A mouth barrier, such as a dental dam, can reduce the spread of infection. You can discuss this method with your dentist or doctor.

  • Be responsible.

    Tell your sex partner or partners that you're being treated for an STI, such as HIV or herpes. If you and your partner choose to have sex, always use a condom.


Current as of: November 22, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Peter Shalit MD, PhD - Internal Medicine