My health priorities:

Sexually transmitted infections and safer sex

There are many infections that can be passed from one person to another during sex. These are called sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Although sex is never risk-free, it can be safer. Safer sex means using a condom and taking care to protect yourself and your partners from infection. Honest communication is the key to safer sex. Talk to your partner about the possible risks you take when you have sex, and decide together which risks you are willing to take.

Safer sex is any sex where you choose behaviours that make it less likely you will get an infection. Using condoms for vaginal and anal sex is only one part of a safer sex strategy.

Safer sex

  • Some of the most serious infections, such as hepatitis and HIV, can be transmitted in body fluids such as blood, semen or vaginal secretions. You can be infected if body fluids from an infected person enter your vagina, anus or mouth.
  • Never touch a sore caused by a sexually transmitted disease. Some kinds of infection can be carried on your hand, at least for a short time.
  • Drinking alcohol or taking drugs can influence the decisions a person makes about sexual risks. Be aware of how drug and alcohol use affects your decision-making around sexual activity.
  • Lesbians are not automatically free from sexually transmitted infections just because they have never had sex with a man. Lesbian partners also need to talk about safer sex.
  • Sharing needles to inject drugs is another way for someone to catch an infection. If you or your partner injects drugs, you need to take some protective steps. There are some ways to make needle use safer.
  • Some sexual activities are riskier than others. Learn about the risks associated with different kinds of sex and what you can do to protect yourself.

High-risk sex

Two kinds of sex that have a high risk of passing infected body fluids from one person to another:

  • vaginal intercourse; a man’s penis entering your vagina
  • anal intercourse; a man’s penis entering your anus

If you are going to have vaginal or anal sex, the best protection against disease is a male or female condom.

A male or female condom is good protection against:

  • trichomonas
  • gonorrhea
  • chlamydia
  • syphilis
  • HIV/AIDS

Condoms also offer some protection against:

  • genital warts
  • herpes
  • hepatitis-B virus

Lower-risk sex

Oral sex is considered lower risk because there are fewer infections you can get in this way. Oral sex means putting your mouth on someone else’s genitals. Although the risk of getting some infections is lower, you can still get these infections through unprotected oral sex:

  • herpes
  • hepatitis
  • gonorrhea
  • syphilis
  • chlamydia
  • very rarely HIV/AIDS

You can also use condoms to protect yourself against these infections during oral sex. If you are performing oral sex on a man, put the condom over the penis to prevent contact between body fluids. If you are performing oral sex on a woman, cut the condom down the side and use it as a flat sheet to prevent contact between body fluids. Non-microwavable plastic wrap can also be used in this way.

Low-risk sex

Low risk sex includes touching and rubbing each other’s genitals with your hands, kissing and massaging each other. These activities are considered low risk because many sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, cannot be transmitted in this way. However, oral herpes is easily transmitted during kissing. Genital warts and trichomonas can be passed from one person to another by moving your hands from one person’s genitals to another. Crabs can move from one person to another during any close contact.

Using sex toys in combination with a condom is also considered low-risk sex. The condom should be placed over the toy and changed for each new act of penetration.

Can we ever stop having safer sex?

Sometimes when a couple has been together for a while, they want to stop using condoms or to stop limiting the ways in which they have sex. If you and your partner are thinking about this, you need to be very honest with each other about your past. Most people have more than one sexual partner in their lives. A previous partner may not have known they had an infection and you may not know now. Unprotected sex always involves some risk but the risk is low if:

  • you have both been tested for sexually transmitted infections
  • neither of you had sex in the six months before the tests with anyone else
  • you can trust each other not to have sex with other people during your relationship (or to tell you so you can protect yourself)
  • neither you nor your partner shares needles to inject drugs

Be careful not to talk yourself into this. We all want to trust our partners, but if you’re not sure, you are probably not ready.

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Oct. 28, 2014

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