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How can you avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD)?

The most effective way to avoid getting an STD is to “abstain from” (avoid) sexual touching below the waist, such as rubbing bodies without clothes, vaginal-penile sex, oral sex and anal sex. If you choose to be sexually active, your next best bet is to practice safer sex, which means using either an external condom or an internal condom (also known as a “female condom”) and/or dental dam every time, getting tested regularly for STDs and asking your partners to do the same.

STDs cannot spontaneously occur. There is risk only when one person already has an STD in their body. Since most STDs don’t have symptoms, you can’t rely on what you see to tell you whether or not an infection is present. So it is better to be safe.

While different STDs are transmitted in different ways, most are spread either through skin-to-skin genital contact or contact with sexual fluids (and sometimes blood) in the mouth, anus, vagina or the urethra of the penis. Most other kinds of close sexual contact with an infected partner carry some risk—sometimes extremely low, sometimes very high—of getting an STD.

If you decide to be sexual with a partner, here are some things you can do to reduce your chances of getting an STD:

  • Get tested regularly, and always get tested before you have sex with a new partner. Your partner should also be tested.
  • Communicate with your partner before having sex. Ask your partner if they have ever had an STD and if it was treated. Ask when your partner last got tested for an STD and if they are willing to get tested again. Ask them if they practiced safer sex with past partners and if that included oral sex. Know that people sometimes don’t know they have an infection or may not consider certain behaviors risky, when in fact they are.
  • Learn about STDs, how they are transmitted and which activities are low risk and which are high risk so that you can make informed decisions about how to protect your sexual health. For example, kissing and massage are low risk. Unprotected vaginal or anal sex is higher risk.
  • Practice safer sex every single time you have sex, even if you’ve both been tested and nothing has shown up. This is the best way for you both to remain safe and protected.

You should also use condoms if you have oral sex involving a penis. Flavored condoms are made specifically for oral sex and are available in most drugstores. During oral sex that involves a vulva or anus, use a dental dam, such as a Sheer Glyde Dam, to cover the vulva or anus. A condom cut lengthwise and placed over a vulva or anus is also an effective barrier. Using non-microwaveable plastic wrap—the kind used for food storage—during oral sex on a vulva or anus is better than not using any protection. Still, a Sheer Glyde Dental Dam offers the best protection during oral sex on a vulva or anus because it is less likely to break if stretched thin the way plastic wrap can.

What is important to remember is that although latex, polyurethane, polyisoprene or nitrile condoms are highly effective, sometimes people don’t use them correctly or consistently. To make sure you know how to use a condom, review the steps.

Got a question about STDs? Visit the American Sexual Health Association’s website.

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