STDs are infections that are passed from one person to another during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. They’re really common, and lots of people who have them don’t have any symptoms.
1 in 2 sexually active people will get a sexually transmitted disease or infection – an STD/STI – by the age of 25 (and there is still risk beyond that). But the good news is that they are avoidable, manageable and definitely worth discussing.
Chlamydia, herpes, and syphilis are a few of the STDs that can be prevented through safe sex. Learn how to protect yourself, avoid passing STDs to your partner, and make healthy decisions about sex.
What is an STD vs. an STI?
STDs are far more common than most people think. Here are some interesting statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- In 2014, 456 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. became infected with chlamydia. Almost 1.5 million new cases were reported over the course of the year
- Prior to the introduction of the HPV vaccine, a national survey found that 42.5 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 59 were infected with HPV. Some estimates have suggested that as many as 80 percent of sexually active adults will be infected with HPV at some point during their lives. If young people were consistently vaccinated, that number could decrease a lot.
- Data from 2007 to 2010 found that 49.9 percent of 14 to 49-year-old Black females and 15.2 percent of White females were infected with HSV-2.
- In 2011, scientists estimated that 14 percent of HIV-positive individuals in the U.S. did not know that they were infected. Universal HIV testing is a goal, but it’s far from a reality.
The difference, really, is in the terminology itself. Way back in the day, sexually transmitted infections were called “venereal diseases,” believed to have been so-called after the Goddess of Love, Venus.
Today, professionals use the terms STD (sexually transmitted disease) or STI (sexually transmitted infection) to discuss infections that are transmitted from one infected person to another through vaginal, anal or oral sex or through close intimate sexual contact.
Using either STD or STI is accurate, however more and more “STI” is being used as the most up-to-date term. The reason for this is that people can have an infection without it actually turning into a disease. Check out our Uncovering STDs tool to see a master list of STDs and learn how they are transmitted.
Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are usually defined as those diseases that primarily spread through intimate contact. They’re not the only diseases that can spread during sex. After all, kissing is a good way to give someone a cold. However, unlike other diseases, STDs aren’t generally spread by casual contact.
STDs are generally spread in one of three ways:
- They can be transmitted by body fluids like blood, saliva, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk.
- They can be transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact.
- There are a few, like pubic lice, that can be transmitted by contact with clothing, towels, or sheets.
It is easiest to prevent those diseases that are transmitted only by body fluids, such as HIV and chlamydia. Consistent use of barriers during sex is very effective in preventing these diseases.
It’s much harder to completely prevent those diseases that spread from skin-to-skin, like herpes. Barriers help, but it simply isn’t practical to cover all potentially infectious skin. It also wouldn’t be much fun.
You should know about STDs
There are a lot of different STDs. Each one is different. So is each person’s STD risk. However, there are five things I think everyone should know about STDs:
- Many STDs have no symptoms. The vast majority of people with STDs have no symptoms. That doesn’t mean that they can’t pass their infection to a partner. And it doesn’t mean that the STD isn’t potentially causing long-term damage. It just means…
- The only way to know if you have an STD is to get tested. It’s impossible to diagnose most STDs by looking at yourself even if you do have symptoms. That’s why regular STD screening is so important for anyone having sex outside of a mutually monogamous relationship.
- Barrier methods are really effective. Having safe sex isn’t a guarantee you won’t get or give an STD. However, consistently using appropriate barriers greatly reduces the odds. You just have to make a point of using them all the time. You can’t just use them for intercourse because…
- Oral sex can easily pass on certain STDs. For example, it’s thought that a growing number of genital herpes cases are caused by unprotected oral sex. Unprotected fellatio is also linked to the rise of syphilis among men who have sex with men.
- The stigma is worse than the reality. People are often terrified that others will judge them for having an STD. Many are so afraid that they’ll refuse even a free STD test. The thing is, most of the time it’s a lot easier to find out your status and deal with the consequences than to spend a lot of time worrying about”what if?”
How does safer sex help protect me from STDs?
STDs are infections that are passed from one person to another during sexual activity. Anybody who has oral, anal, or vaginal sex, or genital skin-to-skin contact with another person can get STDs. Safer sex (often called “safe sex”) means taking steps to protect yourself and your partner from STDs when you have sex.
There are lots of ways you can make sex safer. One of the best ways is by using a barrier — like condoms, female condoms, and/or dental dams — every single time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Barriers cover parts of your genitals, protecting you and your partner from body fluids and some skin-to-skin contact, which can both spread STDs.
Getting tested for STDs regularly is also part of safer sex, even if you always use condoms and feel totally fine. Most people with STDs don’t have symptoms or know they’re infected, and they can easily pass the infection to their partners. So testing is the only way to know for sure whether or not someone has an STD.
Getting tested protects you by letting you know if you DO have an STD, so you can get the right treatment to stay healthy and avoid giving it to other people.
Sticking to sexual activities that don’t spread STDs — like outercourse or mutual masturbation (masturbating while with each other) — is a great way to safely get sexual pleasure and be intimate with another person. But if you’re taking off underwear and touching each other or having any kind of sex, using barriers is the safer way to go.
Another way to make sex safer is to avoid drinking too much alcohol or doing other drugs. Getting wasted can make you forget how important safer sex is, and you may accidentally make decisions that increase your chances of getting STDs. It’s also harder to use condoms correctly and remember other safer sex basics when you’re drunk or high.
The only way to be totally sure you won’t get an STD is to never have any kind of sexual contact with another person. But that doesn’t work for the vast majority of people — most of us are sexually intimate with other people at some point in our lives. So if you’re going to have sex, making it safer sex is the best way to help you avoid getting or passing an STD.
Do condoms prevent STDs and make sex safer?
They sure can help! Condoms are one of the best ways to help prevent STDs. (And bonus! They help prevent pregnancy, too.) There are two kinds of condoms: regular condoms fit snugly on the penis. Female condoms (also called internal condoms) are worn inside the vagina or anus. Never use a regular condom with a female condom at the same time — just use one or the other.
Condoms and female condoms put a barrier between the penis and the other person’s anus, vagina, or mouth. This barrier protects both partners by keeping fluids that can carry infections (like semen and vaginal fluids) out of the other person’s genitals.
By covering the penis or inside of the vagina or anus, condoms and female condoms also prevent skin-to-skin touching that can spread certain STDs (like herpes and genital warts). But condoms may not work as well to prevent skin-to-skin STDs, because they don’t cover every body part that can be infected (like the scrotum or labia).
Put on a condom before your penis even touches your partner’s mouth or genitals, or they won’t work as well to prevent STDs.
Most condoms are made from latex, a kind of rubber. There are also condoms made out of thin, soft plastics like polyurethane, polyisoprene, and nitrile. Female condoms are made from nitrile, too. Plastic condoms are great for people who have latex allergies or sensitivities.
Condoms made of lambskin or other animal membranes DO NOT protect against HIV or other STDs — they only help to prevent pregnancy. Only latex or plastic condoms and female condoms help stop STDs.
It’s also a good idea to use condoms on sex toys if you share them with other people (use a new condom any time a new person uses it), to avoid swapping body fluids that can carry STDs.
How can I make safer sex more convenient?
Barriers like condoms don’t protect you from STDs unless you actually use them, so always having protection nearby makes sticking to your safer sex game plan easier. Luckily, condoms are small, super portable, and can easily be stashed in your purse or backpack (away from anything that may poke them, of course!). It’s also a good idea to keep plenty of condoms and lube near your bed.
You can also make safer sex more convenient by naturally adding condoms to foreplay. You can put the condom on your partner and rub lube on their penis while you keep touching and kissing each other. That way, the condom becomes part of the action instead of stopping the action. If you use female condoms, you can put it in ahead of time before you get busy, so having safer sex is more spontaneous
Condoms are easy to get from drugstores, Planned Parenthood health centers, community health centers, doctor’s offices, supermarkets, convenience stores, online, and even from vending machines, so they’re super convenient.
You don’t need a prescription and there are no age restrictions — anybody can buy condoms, female condoms, and dams. Sometimes, condoms are even free. Female condoms and dams may be a little harder to find, but they’re out there, and you can order them online.
If I have an STD, how can I have safer sex?
If you find out that you have an STD, it’s important to know how to have safer sex and avoid passing it on. Luckily, many STDs can be easily cured with medication, so once you finish treatment, you don’t have to worry about giving your STD to anyone.
And even though some STDs can’t be cured, there are ways to treat your symptoms and help avoid giving your STD to people you have sex with. Depending on what STD you have, there are things you can do to protect your partners. Here’s a handy checklist:
- Always use condoms and dental dams during oral, anal, and vaginal sex — whether or not you have an STD.
- Don’t have sex at all if you have any STD symptoms (like sores or warts around your genitals, weird discharge from your penis, vagina or anus, or itching, pain, irritation and/or swelling in your penis, vagina, vulva, or anus).
- Go see a doctor or nurse so they can start treating your STD as soon as possible.
- If you have a curable STD (like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or syphilis), take all of your medication the way your doctor tells you to, even if your symptoms go away sooner. The infection stays in your body until you totally finish the treatment. Your partner(s) should also be treated at the same time. Don’t have sex at all until you both finish your treatment, and your doctor or nurse says it’s OK.
- If you have an STD that can’t be cured (like HIV or herpes), talk with your doctor about medicines that can help lower your chances of spreading it to a partner. Depending on what STD you have and where it is, you may need to use condoms/dams every time you have oral, anal, and/or vaginal sex.
Always tell your sexual partners that you have an STD before you have sex, so you can work together to make a safer sex plan and help prevent it from spreading. It’s not the easiest conversation, but it’s an important one.
What questions should I ask my partner?
The best time to talk about your safer sex game plan is BEFORE you start having sex (including oral sex). Make sure you’re both cool with using condoms and/or dams to protect yourselves, and figure out when and how you’re going to get tested for STDs.
Some good questions to ask someone before having sex with them include:
- Do you know if you have any STDs?
- When was the last time you were tested for STDs?
- Do you usually use condoms and/or dental dams?
- Have you ever shared needles with someone for tattoos, piercings, or shooting drugs? (You can get some STDs like HIV this way, and then they can be passed to partners during sex.)
- Have you had any STDs before? Which ones? Did you get them treated?
It’s totally normal to be embarrassed at first, but you’ll feel better once you get it over with. And your partner will probably be glad you brought it up. A good way to start is by telling your partner that you care about them and want to do everything you can to make sure you’re protecting them and the relationship.
You can also talk about your own safer sex history first, which might make your partner feel more comfortable opening up. It’s also a great idea to suggest that you get tested together, so you can support each other.
One way to help avoid STDs is to only have sex with one other person at a time. Talk about whether you’re both committed to only having sex with each other (but keep in mind that people lie or may not know they have an STD, so you could still be at risk no matter what they say). If you or your partner aren’t monogamous (either of you has sexual contact with other people), it’s especially important to make a clear plan to protect everybody involved from STDs.
Remember: you can’t tell if someone has an STD by the way they look or feel. Most STDs get passed when there are no symptoms and people don’t realize they’re infected. And some STDs, including HIV, don’t show up on a test until months after a person gets them (but it can still be passed to others). So it’s a good idea to get tested at the beginning of your relationship, and then again a few months later — and use condoms in the meantime.
The bottom line is STDs are really common, and anyone can get them. So always plan on having safer sex and getting tested regularly, even if neither of you think you have an STD.
What’s the best way to prevent spreading or getting an STD/STI?
As with all STDs/STIs, the most effective protection is to abstain from sexual activity or be monogamous with one-long-term partner who has tested negative. Using latex condoms (male or female) or dental dams can significantly reduce the risk of contracting or spreading an infection.
Using a water-based lubricant is A-OK, but don’t use anything with oils in it because it can make the condom ineffective. There are some STDs, like herpes and HPV that condoms are less effective at preventing (good reminder for guys and gals to get the HPV vaccine).
Which STD Tests Should I Get?
If you are sexually active, getting tested for STDs is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health. Make sure you have an open and honest conversation about your sexual history and STD testing with your doctor and ask whether you should be tested for STDs. If you are not comfortable talking with your regular health care provider about STDs, there are many clinics that provide confidential and free or low-cost testing.
Below is a brief overview of STD testing recommendations. STD screening information for healthcare providers can be found here.
- All adults and adolescents from ages 13 to 64 should be tested at least once for HIV.
- All sexually active women younger than 25 years should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year. Women 25 years and older with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners or a sex partner who has an STD should also be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year.
- All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B starting early in pregnancy. At-risk pregnant women should also be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea starting early in pregnancy. Testing should be repeated as needed to protect the health of mothers and their infants.
- All sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested at least once a year for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. Those who have multiple or anonymous partners should be tested more frequently for STDs (i.e., at 3- to 6-month intervals).
- Sexually active gay and bisexual men may benefit from more frequent HIV testing (e.g., every 3 to 6 months).
- Anyone who has unsafe sex or shares injection drug equipment should get tested for HIV at least once a year.
You can quickly find a place to be tested for STDs by entering your zip code in the form below.