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Safe sex


Safe sex means taking steps before and during sex that can prevent you from getting an infection, or from giving one to your partner.

You can’t get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) the first time you have sex.The correct answer is myth. You can get an STI any time you have sex with someone who has an STI. Some common STIs include chlamydia, herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis. If you think you might have an STI, see your doctor. You can’t get an STI from oral sex.The correct answer is myth. You can get an STI from any kind of sex. Using a male condom or a dental dam can protect you from STIs while having oral sex. A dental dam is a thin piece of plastic you place over the anus or vagina during oral sex. A female condom isn’t as good as a male condom at protecting against HIV.The correct answer is fact. Experts don’t know for certain that female condoms work as well as male condoms when it comes to protection against HIV. But if your partner won’t wear a male condom, a female condom is better than using nothing. Using a male condom and a female condom together gives you double protection.The correct answer is myth. Male and female condoms should never be used together. This can make them break or fall out of place, putting you at higher risk for STIs. For the best protection against STIs, use a male condom every time you have sex. You can’t use condoms if you’re allergic to latex.The correct answer is myth. People who are allergic to latex can use polyurethane condoms instead. These condoms are less likely to break, but cost a little more money. Avoid condoms that are labeled “natural” or made of lambskin. These don’t protect against STIs. The best place to carry condoms is in your wallet, so you’ll always have one.The correct answer is myth. It’s best to keep condoms in a place that's dry and cool. This makes them less likely to break while you’re using them. Always check the wrapper for the expiration date and don’t use the condom if it’s old, looks discolored, or has a hole. Using a lubricant with a condom makes it less likely to break.The correct answer is fact. But make sure to use a lubricant that is water-based, such as KY Jelly. Don’t use lubricants that are oil- or petroleum-based, such as petroleum jelly. These types of lubricants make latex condoms more likely to tear. Which activity increases your risk for an STI?The correct answer is all of the above. Any type of sex puts you at risk of getting an STI. Using alcohol or drugs makes you more likely to have unprotected sex. To reduce your risk of STIs, always use a condom or dental dam for any kind of sexual activity. The best condoms are those with nonoxynol-9.The correct answer is myth. Nonoxynol-9 is a type of spermicide. While it may lower your risk of pregnancy, it can increase your risk of getting an STI. For the most protection against STIs, don’t use any products that contain nonoxynol-9. Which is the surest way to avoid STIs:The correct answer is abstinence. The only way to completely avoid STIs is to not have sex. If you do choose to have sex, you can lower your risk by wearing a condom, waiting until you are older, and having only one partner.Douching can help protect you from HIV.The correct answer is myth. Douching can make you more likely to get HIV. This is because it removes some of the bacteria in the vagina that help prevent infection. To reduce your risk of HIV, don’t douche.


A sexually transmitted illness (STI) is an infection that can be spread to another person through sexual contact. These infections include:

STIs are also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

These infections are spread by direct contact with a sore on the genitals or mouth, body fluids, or sometimes the skin around the genital area.

Before having sex:

  • Get to know your partner and discuss your sexual histories
  • Don't feel forced into having sex
  • Don't have sexual contact with anyone but your partner

Your sexual partner should be someone who you know is free from any STI. Before having sex with a new partner, each of you should get screened for STIs and share the test results with each other.

If you have an STI such as HIV or herpes, let any sexual partner know before you have sex. Allow him or her to decide what to do. If you both agree to have sexual contact, use latex or polyurethane condoms. 

Use condoms for all vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse.

  • The condom should be in place from the beginning to the end of the sexual activity. Use it every time you have sex.
  • Keep in mind that STIs can be spread by contact with surrounding skin areas. A condom reduces your risk.

Other tips include:

  • Use lubricants. They may help reduce the chance that a condom will break.
  • Use only water-based lubricants. Oil-based or petroleum-type lubricants can cause latex to weaken and tear.
  • Polyurethane condoms are less prone to breaking than latex condoms, but cost more.
  • Using condoms with nonoxynol-9 (a spermicide) may increase the chance of HIV transmission.

Stay sober. Alcohol and drugs impair your judgment. When you are not sober, you might not choose your partner as carefully. You may also forget to use condoms, or use them incorrectly.


Eckert LO, Lentz GM. Infections of the lower genital tract: vulva, vagina, cervix, toxic shock syndrome, endometritis, and salpingitis. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2012: chap 23.

Frenkl TL, Potts JM. Sexually transmitted infections. In: Wein AJ, ed. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 13.

Lin JS, Whitlock E, O'Connor E, Bauer V. Behavioral counseling to prevent sexually transmitted infections: A Systematic Review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Ann Intern Med. 2008;149:497-508.

Review Date: 
Reviewed By: 
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.