What Do Condoms Protect Against?
When used consistently and correctly, condoms can help prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. When using male condoms for protection against Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), which are also called Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), it’s important to know what you are protecting yourself against. When used correctly, condoms can lower the risk of acquiring STIs but do not prevent them completely. Certain types of condoms are more effective than others, and not all condoms protect you against STIs equally. Some of the most common STIs are:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Hepatitis B virus (HBV)
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) leading to genital warts, cervical, and anal cancer
- Herpes simplex virus – 2 (HSV-2)
How Condoms Work
Condoms prevent STIs by creating a physical barrier between your skin and the microorganism causing the infection. These bugs can infect you in one of two ways: through contact with infected fluid or through skin-to-skin contact.
STIs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, HBV, and HIV are spread through fluid transfer. Condoms will protect you more effectively against these STIs, as the condoms do a great job of providing a physical barrier between you and the microorganisms. When used consistently and correctly, condoms are more than 90% effective against HIV, HBV, and gonorrhea. They are 50-90% effective against chlamydia.
Other STIs, including HSV, syphilis, trichomonas, and HPV are transferred through skin-to-skin contact. This means that you are only protected if the condom is covering the part of the skin that is affected. For example, if your partner has a herpes infection on the part of their skin that is not covered by the condom, the infection can still be spread to you through contact with the affected skin.
What About Synthetic or Lambskin Condoms?
Most condoms are made of latex. If you or your partner have a latex allergy, it’s important to know what other options exist. Non-latex condoms are classified into synthetic and natural types. Synthetic condoms are usually made of polyurethane (plastic) and natural condoms are often made of lambskin. Lambskin condoms are effective against pregnancy but not do offer protection against STIs.
Natural materials, like lambskin, are more porous than latex, so germs like viruses and bacteria that cause STIs can more easily pass through to the other side. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and will more easily pass through porous surfaces. That’s why condoms made out of natural materials like lambskin are less protective against STIs, especially viral infections since the viral particles can more easily pass through.
Synthetic condoms are less porous than natural condoms, so provide better STI protection than lambskin. On the downside, they can be more expensive and less flexible than latex condoms, so require increased lubrication in order to prevent breakage.
Correct Condom Use
Condoms work better to prevent STIs when used correctly. In order to make the most of the protection they provide, make sure to do the following:
- Use appropriate lubricants – On latex condoms, only use water-based lubricants (K-Y, saliva, glycerin). To prevent breakage, never use oil-based lubricants with latex condoms (baby oil, massage oil, lotions, edible oils).
- Check the date – Condoms expire! Most latex condoms have a shelf life of up to 5 years. However, if they contain spermicides, they may expire after 2 years. Check the label!
- Use from start to finish – A common mistake is to put the condom on after starting intercourse, or taking it off before you’re finished. To ensure the most protection, make sure it’s on from start to finish.
- Store correctly – Keep condoms in a cool, dry place. Do not store in your wallet or car for more than a couple hours.
- Avoid novelty condoms – If the package doesn’t state that they are for disease prevention, don’t use them. Novelty condoms (can be used for gag gifts) are often only for sexual stimulation and provide very little protection against STIs.
For more information on the correct way to use a condom, visit the CDC’s website.
Condoms and Oral Sex
Regular use of condoms during oral and anal sex is also important. Research has shown those who use condoms inconsistently during oral sex are 17 times more likely to develop gonorrhea of the throat than those who consistently use them. Condoms can also help prevent oral HPV infections. Using condoms during anal sex is particularly important, as the skin in the rectum tears easily. This can make you more susceptible to new infections, such as HPV, HSV, and HIV. When condoms are used during anal sex, the rate of HIV transmission may drop as much as 70-87%.
Female condoms are made of polyurethane and have similar effectiveness in the prevention of STIs as male latex condoms. Due to their decreased availability and accessibility, increased cost, and partner preferences, they are less widely used.
How To Protect Yourself
The most effective way to avoid acquiring STIs is abstinence and limiting the number of sexual partners. In addition to correct and consistent condom use, other methods to help reduce the risk of acquiring STIs include:
- Regular testing for STDs
- Open and frequent communication with sexual partners about each other’s sexual histories
- Staying up to date on your vaccines for HBV and HPV
- Taking prophylactic (preventative) medications if you or your partner has a known infection