7 ways to lower your risk of STIs


graphic of condom fighting off viruses

It’s that time again—we’re here to talk about STIs and why you don’t want to catch them all. Recap: STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are essentially different terms for the same thing—the bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms that can infect people through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. They’re spread through bodily fluids and skin-to-skin contact.

“STIs are incredibly common among young people, who, according to the CDC, account for half of all new cases,” says Lizzy Appleby, youth program manager at Angles, a sexual health, identity, and education clinic in Illinois. While that can feel a little scary to think about, the good news is that all STIs can either be cured or managed with treatment. The key is getting tested routinely and treated promptly. Plus, there are a bunch of things you can do to help reduce your risk of getting one or giving one to someone else.

“Think of STIs like other kinds of infections,” says Appleby. “You never want to get a cold, so there are some commonsense precautions you can take, like washing your hands or getting enough sleep. But sometimes, even if you do everything right, you still get sick. Then you want to make sure that you don’t make other people sick by covering your mouth when you cough or making sure to go to the doctor.” STIs function in a similar way in that taking precautions is vital to prevent passing them on to others.

Here are seven evidence-backed ways to reduce your risk of getting or transmitting an STI:

1. Get your condom skills on point—and use one every time

Condoms are easy to use, easy to find, and helpful at preventing many STIs and accidental pregnancy—both women and men can use them (one at a time, of course).

External (also known as male) condomsgraphic of condom fighting off viruses

How to put on a condom may seem like a no-brainer. It isn’t necessarily so. Most condom failures actually result from user error.

Here’s the evidence


Here is a 12-step guide to proper condom use (VeryWell)

Internal (also known as female) condoms

graphic of condom fighting off viruses

Another—though less well-known—option is the internal condom. These pouch-shaped condoms are made from a soft plastic material and contain a ring at each end. They can be used for vaginal sex or anal sex (you can remove the ring from the open end for the latter), and are a great option for minimizing STI risk and avoiding unintended pregnancy.

Some legit reasons to try internal condoms


Learn more about internal condoms and how to use them (Bedsider.org)

There are three kinds of lubricants, all of which serve a different purpose.

2. Use condoms and oral dams for oral sex

Consistently using condoms and oral dams considerably reduces your risk of STIs.

Many sexually transmitted infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes (HSV), gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV (though this is a less-likely means of transmission for HIV) can be transmitted through unprotected oral sex. This is why condoms and oral dams are important for oral sex too.

Condom options

For oral sex involving a penis, you can use a dry, lubricated, or flavored condom. Putting lubrication inside the condom increases sensitivity for both partners and makes the condom easier to put on. Condoms are available on many campuses for free or at a low cost.

Oral dam option

An oral dam is a thin piece of latex placed over the vulva or anus for oral sex. Oral dams can also lower your risk of STIs (but not pregnancy). You can cut a condom, latex or plastic glove, or plastic wrap (e.g., non-microwavable saran wrap) into an oral dam. Oral dams are available on some campuses for free or at a low cost. They are also available in some health clinics like Planned Parenthood; specialty stores, such as sex toy or condom stores; or online for about $1.50 each.

Good to know

While safer sex practices reduce your risk of STI infection, they do not entirely eliminate it. It’s similar to how washing your hands reduces your risk of catching a cold. It makes a significant difference, but you’re not 100 percent risk-free unless you choose to not engage in sexual contact with people.


male patient talking with doctor

3. Get tested for STIs

If you don’t know your STI status

Getting tested may help you subsequently take better care of yourself and others—for example, by curing or managing an infection. Get tested every six months and with every new sexual partner. “Check at free clinics or even health screenings on campus, as they usually promise anonymity,” says Michelle B.*, a fourth-year undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University.

If you test negative for STIs

Remember that viruses (including HIV) can take several months to show up in your blood. For accurate results, repeat the test three months later. Herpes testing is most effective when symptoms are evident.

Here’s some of the evidence

Getting tested for and treating STIs is often simple and painless

“All types of STI testing are most commonly done through quick and painless means,” says Appleby. If you do test positive, many types of STIs that are common among young people are treatable with medication.

4. Treat current STI infections and avoid sex if you have a genital abrasion

Having genital abrasions (a cut or sore on or around your genital area) or another STI, with or without symptoms, can increase the risk of transmission and makes you a lot more vulnerable to additional infections, including HIV. If you have HIV, being infected with another STI makes you more likely to transmit HIV, research suggests. To lower your risk of HIV infection, treat the STI and avoid sex if you have a genital abrasion. 

Lowering the risk of transmission if you have HIV

The herpes simplex virus (HSV) can also be spread to the genitals via oral herpes (cold sores) on or around the mouth.

The two herpes strains (HSV-1) and (HSV-2) can each cause symptoms and raise your risk of other STIs. If you have a cold sore or blisters on or around the mouth, avoid oral sex, as well as kissing and sharing drinks.

5. Try having fewer sexual partners—and talk to your partners about safer sex practices

The more sexual partners you have, the greater your potential exposure to STIs.

If you or your partner have multiple partners, do this

Here’s why the risk is higher with multiple partners


female holding condom package

6. If you have anal sex, use a condom and lubrication every time

Unprotected anal sex carries a higher risk for STI transmission. The anus does not naturally lubricate; it can tear easily, raising the risk of being infected with HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and other STIs.

To reduce your risk

7. Men who have sex with men: Take daily preventive medication to reduce risk of HIV

Each of these risk-reduction strategies can provide around 90 percent protection (or more) from the specified danger, various studies suggest.

If you don’t have HIV

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a course of daily medication for people at high risk of becoming infected with HIV, such as men who have sex with men or anyone who has had sex with an HIV-positive person or person who uses drugs intravenously. When taken as advised by health care providers, the medicine lowers the risk of becoming infected with HIV by up to 92 percent, according to the CDC. If PrEP is not taken consistently, it is much less effective. People taking PrEP should continue to use condoms and get tested for STIs every six months and/or with every new sex partner.

If you have HIV

Treatment as Prevention (TasP) is a course of medication for people who are already infected with HIV. The medicine reduces their “viral load”—the amount of HIV particles in their blood. When taken as advised by health care providers, TasP means you are up to 96 percent less likely to pass the HIV infection on to others, according to the New England Journal of Medicine (2011). People taking TasP should continue to use condoms and get tested for STIs every six months and/or with every new sex partner.

Bonus

Since we’re talking about dramatically lowering risk, three other STIs can be prevented by vaccines: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and some of the harmful strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, talk to your health care provider about the options. .

Lizzy Appleby, MA, youth program manager at Angles, a sexual health, identity, and education clinic, Northfield, Illinois.

Joleen Nevers, MA Ed, CHES, AASECT Certified Sexuality Education, sexuality educator, health education coordinator, University of Connecticut.

Tara R. Schuster, MS, MCHES, coordinator of health promotion, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Pierre-Paul Tellier, MD, family physician, CLSC de Côte-des-Neiges, McGill University in Quebec.

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