Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections spread by sexual contact. This includes genital skin-to-skin contact and vaginal, oral, and anal sex. If you're pregnant, you can also spread them to your baby before or during the birth.
STIs are common. But they don't always cause symptoms. And if they are not treated, they can lead to health problems. Testing and treatment are important to help protect the health of you and your partner(s).
STIs caused by bacteria can go away with treatment. STIs caused by viruses can be treated to relieve symptoms, but treatment won't make them go away.
Preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
STIs can be spread by people who don't know they are infected. But there are things you can do to prevent STIs.
- Avoid sexual contact completely (abstinence), including intercourse and oral sex.
Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent an infection.
- Practice safer sex.
Practicing safer sex can reduce your risk of STIs. Some things you can do to practice safer sex include limiting your sex partners and using condoms.
Talking about STIs and safer sex
Even though a sex partner doesn't have symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), they may still be infected. Before you have sex with someone, it's a good idea to discuss STIs.
Questions to ask someone before having sex include:
- How many people have you had sex with?
- Have you had sex without a condom?
- Have you ever had unprotected oral sex?
- Have you had more than one sex partner at a time?
- Do you inject illegal drugs, or have you had sex with someone who injects drugs?
- Have you ever exchanged sex for money or drugs?
- Have you had a test for HIV? What were the results?
- Have you ever had an STI, including hepatitis B? Was it treated?
Practicing safer sex
Here are some things you can do to have safer sex and help protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- Use condoms.
A condom is the best way to protect yourself from STIs. Latex and polyurethane condoms don't let STI viruses pass through, so they offer good protection from STIs. Condoms made from sheep intestines don't protect against STIs. Even if you and your partner have been tested, use condoms for all sex until you and your partner haven't had sex with another person for 3 months. Then get tested again.
- Watch for symptoms of STIs.
Symptoms can include unusual discharge, sores, redness, or growths in your or your partner's genitals or pain while urinating. STIs may cause many different symptoms.
- Have only one sex partner at a time.
Your risk for an STI is higher if you have several sex partners at the same time.
- Use a lubricant.
If there's a lack of lubrication during intercourse, lubricants like K-Y Jelly or Astroglide can help prevent tearing of the skin. Small tears in the vagina during vaginal sex or in the rectum during anal sex allow STI bacteria or viruses to get into your blood. If you use latex condoms, don't use an oil-based lubricant. Oil can weaken the condom so that it breaks.
- Don't douche.
Douching can change the normal balance of organisms in the vagina and increases the risk of getting an STI.
- Use a mouth barrier if you have oral sex.
A mouth barrier, such as a dental dam, can reduce the spread of infection. You can discuss this method with your dentist or doctor.
- Don't share sex toys.
Sharing sex toys without cleaning them or using a condom can spread STIs. If you do share them, use a condom and clean the sex toys between each use.
- Talk to your partner(s) before you have sex.
Talk about what you feel comfortable with and whether you have any boundaries with sex. And find out if your partner(s) may be at risk for STIs. Keep in mind that a person may be able to spread an STI even if they do not have symptoms. You and your partner(s) may want to get tested for STIs before having sex.
Current as of: August 2, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Peter Shalit MD, PhD - Internal Medicine