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safer sex

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Female condom

Alternative Names
safe sex

Safer or safe sex practices are sexual practices that lower the risk of catching or giving a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or becoming pregnant.

What is the information for this topic?
Sex can be an enjoyable, life-enhancing experience. Everyone must recognise, though, that many sexual activities carry risks, such as:
  • unwanted pregnancy
  • STDs
  • emotional and psychological trauma
Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. Some sexual activities are much safer than others, though. These include:
  • hugging
  • kissing
  • touching
  • holding hands
  • mutual masturbation
  • intimate conversations
Other types of sex are more risky. Vaginal, anal or oral sex can spread any viruses, bacteria and parasites present in bodily fluids. Some activities may cause tiny tears in genital or rectal tissues. This allows bacteria and other organisms to penetrate the skin and cause infections.

Pregnancy is a risk, too, with unprotected intercourse.

Practicing safer sex can lessen the likelihood of getting an STD, such as: Women who have unprotected sexual intercourse are more likely to have recurrent yeast infections. They are also at higher risk for bacterial vaginosis, which is an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina.

Although unwanted pregnancies often can be prevented by using birth control with oral contraceptives, such as ethinyl oestradiol/norethindone or ethinyl oestradiol/norgestrol, long-acting medroxyprogesterone, cervical caps, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and diaphragms, none of these methods protects against STDs.

Latex and probably plastic male and female condoms protect best against STDs, because viruses and other organisms may slip through tiny holes in condoms made of animal skin. But no condom can offer complete protection. With male condoms, for example, skin surfaces like the scrotum and labia, or outer lips of the vagina may still touch. And any condom may break or slip during sexual activity.

To use a male condom correctly:
  • Hold the condom at the tip to squeeze out air. Roll it all the way down to the base of the erect penis.
  • After intercourse, withdraw while the penis is still erect. Hold onto the condom while doing so to prevent leaks.
  • Use only water-based lubricants, such as K-Y Jelly, with latex condoms. Oil-based lubricants like petroleum jelly or solid vegetable shortenings can weaken these condoms and make them break.
  • Choose those condoms made with the spermicide nonoxynol-9. It helps kill some organisms that cause STD's.
  • Refer to the manufacturer's instructions to use the female condom correctly.
Other important safer sex practices:
  • Limit the number of sexual partners. Monogamy, or an exclusive one-to-one relationship, helps lower the risk of catching an STD.
  • Do not have sex when either partner has sores on the penis or vulva, genital warts or unusual discharge.
  • Avoid partners who use IV drugs or have had many other sexual partners, an STD, or unprotected homosexual intercourse.
  • Do not mix sex with alcohol or illegal substances. Doing so lessens the ability to practice safer sex.
  • Seek healthcare right away if an STD or exposure to an STD is suspected.
Do not hesitate to call a doctor:
  • if an STD or exposure to an STD is a possibility
  • if unprotected sex occurred and pregnancy or an STD is suspected
  • if sexual activity causes emotional or psychological stress
Author: Ann Reyes, Ph.D.
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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