How do I prevent STIs?
The only 100% effective way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is to abstain from activity that could exchange semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, or blood. This means no anal, oral, or vaginal sex. STIs can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, such as rubbing bodies without clothes, so that is why we point out the fluids that can transmit STIs…these fluids can be exchanged even if you are not having “sex.”
If you aren’t going to abstain, you should practice safer sex. Safer sex includes a number of things, but remember that you want to prevent the exchange of semen, vaginal fluid, or blood between partners. Condoms and dental dams can be used as a barrier for these fluids during anal, oral, and vaginal sex.
Here are some other steps you can take to prevent STIs:
- Get to know your partner before you have sex. Get to know your partner’s personality, good traits (and annoying traits too,) ask about his or her sexual history and if s/he practiced safer sex. The more you know someone, the better you will be able to determine if you really want to have sex with him or her. If you do decide to have sex, hopefully you will be better able to communicate openly and can make good sexual decisions for both of you.
- Before you have sex, get you and your partner tested for HIV and STDs. You can’t get an STI if your partner doesn’t have an STD, but remember, there is a “window period” when you or partner may have HIV or an STI and not test positive yet. Find a place to get tested for STIs near you.
- Learn how to use a condom (you too females!) Use it correctly every time you have anal, oral, or vaginal sex.
- Get you and your partner(s) tested often, approximately every 3-6 months.
- Learn about activities that you can do with your partner that are not high risk for HIV or STIs, such as kissing and massaging. Also know what activities are high risk, such as unprotected vaginal and anal sex.
- Understand some of the symptoms of STIs, but more importantly, know that many STIs have no symptoms. (See #4)
Should I dump my partner? He told me that he never had an STI, but a few weeks ago I had some painful bumps on my labia. My doctor said it is herpes!
You might ask a prospective sex partner whether they’ve had STIs (like herpes) before you have sex. (We highly recommend doing this!) Getting you and your partner tested for STIs before you have sex is the best way to know. However, tests may not reveal everything. In fact, of the 50 million men and women estimated to have genital herpes in the United States, over 80% are not aware that they have it. That means if you are dealing with a new herpes diagnosis, you may not have any idea where it came from. This doesn’t mean one of your partners is lying to you; most people just don’t realize that they were ever infected. So even if your inner detective wants to dump (or kill) the partner who gave you herpes, if you’ve had more than 1 or 2 partners, chances are you just won’t be able to be 100% sure. Regardless of whether or not you find the source, it’s important for you to tell your partners about it so they can get tested and protect themselves.
My best friend is so spontaneous (I say irresponsible.) With every new partner, she says she will get tested for STI with him, but then always ends up having sex first! How can I get her to listen and get tested first?
Your friend is lucky to have you as a friend! You are right, getting you and your partner tested for STIs before you have any sex is the best way. However, for those who get caught up in the moment (your friend,) here are some tips you can pass along.
- No money, but need a condom fast? CondomFinder shows where you can get free condoms near you. Bonus: Some of the places listed are open really late, and here are even more resources!
- In the very rare instance when a guy is too big for a condom, internal condoms (female condoms) are a great alternative.
- Don’t have a dental dam? You can cut a condom in half lengthwise and use that.
- Lube reduces tearing, which is a really good thing because tears can lead to greater infection rates. Here are a few easy-to-find items that can be used as lube in a pinch.
Even if your friend doesn’t get to a provider before she has sex, encourage her to see a provider soon after.
My Health teacher said that many people don’t have symptoms of STIs, is he just trying to scare us?
It’d be great if we could tell who had an STI and who didn’t. Shouldn’t people with STIs wear some kind of warning label, have bumps/blisters on their genitals so we would know to STAY AWAY or if we just knew by how many partners they say they had? (The previous sentence was meant to be sarcastic, did you get it?)
This is NOT the way it works with STIs. What’s most important to remember is that the most common symptom of all STIs is no symptom at all. STIs are often asymptomatic or display such mild symptoms they go unnoticed and/or are mistaken for something else. For that reason, most people with an STI are unaware they have one.
When STIs are asymptomatic or exhibiting mild symptoms, they’re still transmittable to others—and there’s no guarantee the STI will remain asymptomatic in the newly infected individual. Recognizable symptom or not, STIs can wreak havoc internally long before we’re aware of their effects; untreated asymptomatic STIs can pose long-term health risks like liver damage (eg. Hepatitis) and infertility (eg. Chlamydia and gonorrhea).
Contrary to popular belief, things like appearance and cleanliness are not indicators of infection—outside the obvious visible symptoms when they’re present. Hygiene is still important to help safeguard you against things like the common cold and the flu, of course, but some traditional practices such as douching after sex or brushing your teeth after a make-out session can actually make you more susceptible to STIs.
So, what to do? The only 100% way to avoid STIs is to avoid sexual behaviors that transmit the 4 bodily fluids that transmit STIs (blood, breast milk, vaginal fluid and semen) and to avoid skin-to-skin contact. The second best thing to do is get you and your partner tested for STIs BEFORE you have any type of sex. This isn’t full proof, but it is a LOT better than just “hoping” your partner doesn’t have an STI. “A+” for your Health teacher, he was correct!
Anal and oral sex protect you from pregnancy, can they protect you from STIs too?
Anal sex might seem like a viable option if you’re concerned about pregnancy or losing your virginity (in the traditional vaginal penetration sense,) however, unprotected anal sex poses one of the highest STI risks. The anal cavity is comprised of permeable mucous membranes, which can provide an entry point for infection. Due to the nature of sexual activity involving the anus, small tears and cuts are common—especially if you’re not using enough lube—so, additional points of entry present infection opportunities.
Choosing to have oral sex or engaging in activities with someone who’s only had oral sex might also seem like a way to lower your risk, but the risk of contracting an STI is still high. The mouth too is made up of mucous membranes, and something as common as a cold sore—herpes (usually HSV1)—can be transmitted to the genitals or vice versa.
If you are going to engage in anal or oral sex, you should still protect yourself from STIs. Dental dams, condoms and internal (female) condoms can help protect you from STIs, but they are not full proof, only abstinence is. Getting yourself and your partner tested for STIs before having sex is also a responsible choice.
I know that the IUD is really effective preventing pregnancy, what about preventing STIs?
You are correct, the IUD is one of the best ways to prevent pregnancy! Unfortunately, it does absolutely nothing to prevent STIs. Actually, all of the effective birth control methods, like the IUD, Implant, pill, patch, ring, etc. do not help protect from STIs. The only birth control method that also helps protect against STIs is condoms. So, if you are responsible enough to get yourself on one of the effective birth control methods that I mentioned above, I am sure you are responsible enough to use a condom with these methods each time you have sex in order to help protect against STIs.