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Top 7 Ways to Protect Yourself from STDs

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Nathan LeDeaux, MD
Last Updated: Dec 14, 2021
STD Protection

Considering serious health risks ranging from discomfort to death, the potential to impact your future romantic partnerships, and the general social stigma around them, STDs should be something you avoid at all costs.

That said, you shouldn’t worry that the world is ending if you contract an STI. Antibiotics can treat some infections, and complications are minimal if you catch them early. But certain STDs stay with you for life, and the best you can do is alleviate your symptoms and take pains not to spread the infection to a partner.

Ideally, we’d like you never to have to confront those issues, so we’ve devised a quick guide to help keep you safe and informed.

Jump to:

Key STD Facts
What are STDs and STIs
Living with an STD
How to protect yourself

Key STD Facts

STD cases have been on the rise for years, with cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis dramatically rising between 2015 and 2019. Syphilis infections took a 1% dip in 2020 due to restrictions from the COVID pandemic, but chlamydia and gonorrhea continued to spread at increasing rates.

  • One in five people in the US has an STI.
  • Nearly half of all new infections in the US occur in people between 15 and 24.
  • Left untreated, many STDs can lead to infertility and other serious complications.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is among the most common STDs globally and is virtually undetectable in men.
  • Many STDs can pass from mother to child during pregnancy or delivery.

What are STDs and STIs?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) begin as sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Many people will use the terms interchangeably, though they are technically different. When a virus or bacteria enters the body, an infection is present. We consider an STI a disease when it begins to disrupt any of the body’s normal functions.

How are they spread?

While their name includes the term “sexually transmitted,” sexual intercourse is just one of the ways that STDs can spread. A list of all the typical ways STDs spread would look like this:

  • Sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal)
  • Contact with blood or sexual fluids
  • Contaminated blood transfusion
  • Intravenous drug use
  • Contact with warts or lesions
  • Pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding (mother-to-child)

Other scenarios can lead to infection — such as sharing a razor or toothbrush with a hepatitis patient — but those listed above are among the most common.

How can you tell if you’re infected?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1,000,000 infections are contracted worldwide every day. Even more frightening is that the majority of those infections are asymptomatic, which means the infected people have no way of knowing they’ve contracted anything without a positive test.

Knowing the potential signs of an infection — like painful urination — is essential, but testing is paramount. Anyone sexually active should test regularly, especially if a former partner reports an infection.

Here’s a quick look at the most common STDs and some of their typical symptoms:

  Common Symptoms May be Asymptomatic
Chlamydia Painful urination, genital discharge
Yes
Gonorrhea Genital discharge, persistent sore throat
Yes
Trichomoniasis Genital itching, burning, or redness
Yes
HPV Genital warts, cervical lesions
Yes
Herpes Genital, oral, or anal sores
Yes
Syphilis Rash, hair loss, muscle aches
Yes
HIV Fever, swollen lymph nodes
Yes
Hepatitis B Fever, fatigue, dark urine
Yes

Living with an STD

The experience of having an STD can range from moderate discomfort to death. Some of the most common STDs like gonorrhea and chlamydia are susceptible to antibiotic intervention. You can clear such an infection with relative ease and move on.

In the case of some other common STDs, you won’t be so lucky. STDs like HIV, HPV, herpes, and hepatitis B are currently incurable. They can lead to unfavorable outcomes – AIDS, cancer, and liver failure, just to name a few – and the road to those diagnoses is not pleasant.

Drugs do exist that can keep these infections from consuming your life, but they are routinely expensive, and you’ll be tied to those treatments forever. One month’s worth of some of these drugs can cost over $1,000.

To give you a quick idea of which STDs are curable, what basic treatment looks like, and worst-case scenarios if a disease goes untreated, we’ve created the following chart:

  Curable? Treatment Risk If Left Untreated
Chlamydia
Yes
Antibiotics Pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility
Gonorrhea
Yes
Antibiotics Infertility
Trichomoniasis
Yes
Antibiotics Infertility
HPV   Vaccination, wart creams Cervical, genital, or oral cancer
Herpes   Prescriptions to limit outbreaks Increased risk of other STDs
Syphilis
Yes
Penicillin and antibiotics Dementia, internal bleeding, death
HIV   Anti-virals AIDS, death
Hepatitis B   Vaccination, anti-virals Cirrhosis or carcinoma of the liver

How to protect yourself

You can take several actions to protect yourself from STDs and help prevent their spread. Some are close to 100% effective, and a little thought and consideration can keep you safer still. These recommendations carry no judgment of sexual habits or personal choices; they merely serve to encourage that you live your life to the fullest while protecting the well-being of yourself and others.

Condoms

One of the most common and most effective ways to prevent the spread of STDs is to use a condom, preferably a latex condom. Condoms made from alternative rubbers tend to slip off more easily, and those made of lambskin are too permeable to protect against STIs.

If you use them correctly, condoms can be up to 98% effective. That means it has to be a good fit, and you should roll it down gently over the penis, taking care to leave some slack at the tip. A condom that’s too tight or that you apply without that slack can rupture during intercourse.

Some condoms contain spermicide, a chemical designed to prevent pregnancy. While effective at killing sperm, spermicide can cause skin irritation for either partner, which increases the risk of STIs. Without spermicide, condoms are still incredibly effective at preventing pregnancy, so we don’t recommend it.

If you want or need to use lubricant with a condom, make sure that it’s either water-based or silicone-based. Oil-based lubricants can damage latex and leave you vulnerable to STIs.

Dental dams

Dental dams are among the least popular means for protection, but oral sex can transmit disease just as easily as vaginal or anal sex for certain infections. It’s hard to say exactly what percentage of STDs arise from oral sex since most people engaging in oral sex also engage in other forms of intercourse. It’s a risk, though. For example, HPV infects around 80% of sexually active people, and an oral HPV infection can lead to throat cancer.

Vaccinations

There isn’t a vaccine for every STD, but vaccines do exist for hepatitis B and HPV. Like any vaccine, efficacy is not 100%, and you should still use condoms, dental dams, and other means in addition to vaccination.

Also, the HPV vaccine has continued to evolve over the years. You can safely receive the latest vaccine if you received an HPV vaccine before 2014. Earlier vaccines protected against the highest risk strains of the day — strains 6, 11, 16, and 18. Newer vaccines cover strains 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. That dramatically increases their efficacy as those other strains propagate. And don’t worry about the redundancies between vaccines, as they pose no danger.

Abstinence

Abstinence implies that you abstain from all sexual activity, including oral and anal intercourse. It can keep you safe from STDs that you might encounter from a sexual partner, but sexual abstinence will not safeguard you from infections that may arise from needle sharing, blood transfusions, or other non-sexual means. Ultimately abstinence is a personal choice. There are enough ways to stay safe while being sexually active that it isn’t necessary, but it is technically the safest option of the bunch.

Testing

Few tools in preventing the spread of STDs are as powerful as testing. It may not directly protect you from getting an STD, but regular testing will ensure you don’t carry any asymptomatic infections. That will keep you from spreading the infection to others, and it will also allow you to treat an STD before later-stage symptoms can set in.

You should know that testing has evolved quite a bit in recent years. A urine or blood sample is all that most labs will require. The days of a swab entering your urethra are behind us, so you can rely on testing to be quick and painless. Certain methods like at-home testing can even be almost entirely anonymous.

Communication

Talking about STDs can be uncomfortable. But open and honest communication with your partners is essential to your health. Don’t be afraid to ask about your partner’s sexual history and health before you have intercourse with them. And if they refuse to share that information or present with any symptoms of an STD, don’t be afraid to say no.

Having a recent test result at the ready is one of the best ways to put yourself out there first, and it will encourage your partner to do the same. Some at-home testing companies even offer dual test kits designed for couples who just got together or those in open relationships.

Monogamy or closed relationships

It’s statistically undeniable that the more sexual partners you have, the likelier you are to acquire an STD. A monogamous relationship — regardless of the number of partners therein — is an outstanding way to protect yourself from STDs. Still, since it’s possible to catch some STDs from non-sexual activities, it’s a good idea to test occasionally, especially if any symptoms present themselves.

You can take other actions to avoid STDs that you may encounter in non-sexual situations.

  • Avoid sharing needles
  • Seek counseling for addiction or alcoholism
  • Don’t share towels
  • Don’t share underwear or bathing suits

If you think you may have an STD, abstain from all sexual activity and get tested as soon as possible. At-home tests are available if you’re at all concerned with privacy, and they are both fast and accurate.