Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. contract a sexually transmitted disease. Thus, it is important to understand what behaviors put you, your family and friends at risk. All of us must take responsibility for protecting ourselves and our partners. Simply addressing these issues does not imply approval of the sexual practices discussed.

Most STDs are treatable, but AIDS has no cure and death is virtually certain. Therefore, education about this disease is vital. Although AIDS can be spread through shared use of contaminated needles among drug abusers, or rarely, through a blood transfusion, it is usually transmitted by sexual contact. The virus is present in semen and vaginal secretions and enters a person's body through the small tears in the vaginal or rectal tissues that can develop during sexual activity. AIDS is not considered a highly contagious disease; transmission of the virus occurs only after very intimate contact with infected blood or semen.

On the other hand, STDs (such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, venereal warts and syphilis) are highly contagious and many can be spread through even brief sexual contact. However, none of these infections are spread through casual contact, such as handshaking, talking, sitting on toilet seats, or living in the same house with an infected person. The microorganisms that cause STDs (including AIDS) all die quickly once outside the body.

The only sure way of preventing STDs and AIDS is through sexual abstinence or a relationship with only one uninfected person (straight or gay). If you have several partners, either heterosexual or homosexual, you place yourself at a high risk of contracting disease. At present, no vaccine is available to prevent any of the STDs.

To help prevent the spread of STDs:

  • Know your sexual partner. Tell your sexual partner if you have an STD and ask your partner if they may have an STD.
  • Look for signs of an STD in your sexual partner. For example, look for sores around the penis or vagina. If your partner has:

Chlamydia - Look for signs of itching around the vagina, a yellow and odorless discharge, pain during sex and pain and frequency during urination for women. Men may have pain or burning when urinating, and a watery, milky-colored discharge from the penis.

Gonorrhea - Women may have a white, green or yellow discharge, painful urination, spotting between periods and sometimes fever and abdominal pain. Men may have a thick yellow discharge, painful urination and the opening of the penis may be sore.

Syphilis - A painless red sore will appear where you were touched during intercourse. A few months later, you may have a fever, sore throat, headaches and joint pain.

Herpes - A tingling and itching around the genitals. Small painful blisters may form in the area

  • Limit the amount of sexual partners.
  • Always use a condom when having sex.
  • Don't douche. Douching may spread infections higher into the womb.

Use of Condoms

While condoms do not eliminate risk, the correct use of a condom and avoidance of certain sexual practices can decrease the risk of contracting AIDS, as well as other STDs. The condom (also known as a prophylactic, a rubber or safe) is a thin sheath, usually made of latex rubber, that covers the erect penis.

When used correctly, a latex condom is effective, both for preventing pregnancy and for decreasing the chances of contracting most STDs (including AIDS). Condoms can be purchased over the counter at any drugstore and are available in various thicknesses, colors and shapes. They may be lubricated or unlubricated, have a plain end or a reservoir end, and have a smooth (the most common), ribbed or corrugated texture.

Condoms can cost as little as three for a dollar, but usually the cost ranges from 50 cents to a dollar each. Condoms sometimes are made of animal membrane; however, some experts believe that the pores in such natural "skin" condoms may allow the virus to pass through. To be effective, the condom must be undamaged, applied to the erect penis before genital contact, and must remain intact and snugly in place until completion of the sexual activity.

About a third of all condoms now sold in the U.S. are purchased by women. They can be kept in a pocket or purse until needed, and they provide protection against STDs. The condom can be placed on the erect penis of a male partner as a part of the initial foreplay; a man who objects to a condom may be less opposed to wearing one if his partner puts it on for him.

Other Prevention Methods

Spermicides are creams, foams, suppositories, jellies or film that a woman puts in her vagina to kill sperm. Lab studies show that spermicides also kill many of the germs that cause STDs. However, they offer less protection than condoms. For STD prevention, spermicides are best used with condoms, not in place of them.

Diaphragm, Sponge and Cap These types of birth control are inserted into the vagina to hold spermicide up to the cervix (entrance to the uterus - womb). The spermicide used with these methods can help protect the cervix from STDs.

Pill, Norplant, Depo-Provera and the IUD. The birth control pill, the Norplant implant and Depo-Provera injection, use man-made hormones to stop pregnancy. These devices give no protection against STDs. The IUD is a small device put inside the uterus to prevent pregnancy. It also gives no protection against STDs.

Withdrawal, Washing or Urinating Withdrawing the penis before ejaculation is not a reliable way to prevent STDs. Washing or urinating after intercourse may help remove some of the germs that cause certain STDs, but they cannot prevent STDs.