Practising safe sex is important not just for your own health, but for the health of your sexual partner (or partners) too. Not only can sexually transmitted infections (STIs) be transmitted between you, if one person is already infected, but there’s also a risk of having an unwanted pregnancy.
Below, this guide outlines some of the ways you can practise safe sex to minimise your risk of pregnancy and also to protect you from STIs.
How to have safe sex
Safe sex means engaging in sexual intercourse (not always penetrative sex, but other activities too) in a manner that reduces your risk of catching or transmitting STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes, syphilis, HIV, Hep A/B and HPV. The risk of catching each infection may depend on the sexual activity being carried out and the preventative methods you’ve put in place.
When we talk about safe sex in this guide, we also discuss pregnancy prevention. Many people want to be able to enjoy themselves without the worry of getting pregnant, so we would consider this another form of safe sex.
Use barrier contraceptives
Barrier contraceptives like condoms can protect you from almost every type of sexually transmitted infection. There are some exceptions, but they’re one of the best forms of protection because they form a barrier between your skin and your partner’s skin. Should one of you have an infection, a condom can prevent bodily fluids from touching your own skin and potentially infecting you.
Condoms can protect you from certain STIs, including:
● Genital herpes
● Genital warts
When using condoms, it’s important that you use the correct size and put them on in the right way to prevent them from potentially splitting. They can also perish with age and heat so you should avoid using condoms that have expired or been exposed to a variety of temperatures. Should you choose to use a lubricant, water-based ones may be better than an oil-based form, as the oil could increase the chance of a breakage.
By sticking to these guidelines, you can reduce the risk of the condom splitting, allowing bodily fluids to touch your skin or letting sperm enter the vagina and increasing the chance of pregnancy. It is worth noting however, that any infected skin that isn't covered by the condom may still pass on an infection, such as HPV or herpes.
Take a hormonal contraceptive
While barrier methods are the only contraceptive that can protect you against both pregnancy and STIs, hormonal contraceptives prevent you from getting pregnant. Perhaps you don’t need protection from STIs (for example, you’ve been in a monogamous relationship with the same partner for a number of weeks, months or years) in which case, you may consider hormonal contraception by itself to be enough.
When it comes to contraception to prevent pregnancy, you have a few options. These include the pill, the injection, the patch and the implant. In fact, the NHS states that there are 15 different methods of contraception (and not all of them are hormonal).
Contraception is available from a number of places, including your local pharmacy, your GP, a contraception clinic or a sexual health clinic.
Get tested regularly for STIs
By being regularly tested for STIs, a potential infection can be found more quickly, especially if you have one that doesn’t have obvious symptoms. For instance, chlamydia has no symptoms in around 70% of women and 50% of men. A test could reveal that you have an infection and you may be able to get it treated more quickly than if you waited for symptoms to appear.
Should you have a number of sexual partners, you could get a test every few months. You may also want to request that a new partner has a test prior to partaking in any sexual activity.
Avoid sharing sex toys
STIs aren’t just passed through direct skin-to-skin contact, but through bodily fluids too. This means that sharing sex toys without cleaning them between the exchange can increase your risk of passing on or contracting an infection. Sex toys should be cleaned between each use, and to be even safer, you may wish to use a condom on your sex toys and change the condom before switching who the toy is being used on.
Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B and HPV
While you can’t get vaccinated against all STIs, you could get a vaccine for hepatitis A and B, as well as HPV.
The hepatitis A vaccine is given less often because the risk of contracting this infection is fairly low for the majority of the population. You might only receive this vaccine if you’re high risk. High risk people might include:
● Those in close contact with someone who has hepatitis A
● Men who have sex with other men
● Those who are planning to travel to a place abroad where it is more widespread.
The hepatitis B vaccine is more common in the UK and is offered as part of the routine NHS vaccination schedule. It is part of the vaccination offered to babies before they’re four months old.
There are some people at a higher risk of contracting hepatitis B. These might include:
● Men who have sex with men
● Babies whose mothers are infected
● People whose sexual partner has hepatitis B
● Sex workers
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is considered a type of sexually transmitted infection and it can cause the development of some cancers, like cervical, head, neck and anal cancer. It’s for this reason that children are routinely offered an HPV vaccine while they’re in school. Most children will get their first dose when they’re around 12 to 13 years old, and their second dose up to two years later. For those that didn’t or couldn’t get it at school, you can get the vaccine for free on the NHS before your 25th birthday.
By using the above methods to practise safe sex, you could reduce your risk of getting pregnant, but also of either passing on or contracting an STI.