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updated May 01, 2007

Condoms: STD protection plus effective birth control

  • SUMMARY
  • Get the facts on how condoms work, how they're used and how effective they are at protecting against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and preventing pregnancy.
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MayoClinic Logo
Filed under: Infectious Diseases

(MayoClinic.com) A condom is a thin, cylindrical sheath placed over the erect penis just before sexual intercourse. Condoms may be made of latex, lambskin or polyurethane. Those made of latex provide the most protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Condoms are available with or without a lubricant in a variety of lengths, widths and thicknesses. Fit is important. If it's too tight, a condom is more likely to break. If it's too loose, it may slip off.

If you use a condom with a sperm-killing (spermicidal) cream or jelly, the risk of pregnancy is further decreased. Spermicide also can be inserted into the vagina before intercourse or used as a lubricant on the condom.

Do condoms reduce the risk of STDs?

Yes. By blocking the exchange of body fluids that might contain infectious agents, latex condoms provide the best protection available against STDs. Used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective at preventing the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, and at reducing the risk of infection from other STDs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.

In fact, with the spread of AIDS and other STDs, latex condoms may have a greater role in disease prevention than in contraception. Condoms are almost synonymous with safe sex. In any nonexclusive sexual relationship — or in any relationship in which one partner's HIV status is unknown — you should automatically be using a condom, even if your partner is on the pill or using another form of contraception. Condoms greatly reduce the risk that either partner will pass a sexually transmitted virus or bacterium to the other. Condoms protect the penis and urethra, where sexually transmitted infections may begin after contact with STD-causing agents in the partner's vagina, rectum or mouth. In turn, they protect men's partners from sexually transmitted organisms that may be on the penis or in semen or pre-ejaculatory fluid.

Polyurethane and lambskin condoms do not protect against STDs as well as latex condoms do. Read the label on the package to see what the condom is made of and whether it's labeled for disease prevention. If you're concerned about preventing STDs, use a latex condom. Latex provides the best protection.

How do condoms prevent pregnancy?

When the man ejaculates, his semen remains inside the condom and doesn't enter the woman's vagina, so conception does not occur.

A condom doesn't affect a man's reproductive function, so it's possible to achieve a pregnancy immediately after stopping this form of birth control.

How do you use a condom?

As you unroll the condom, make sure that you leave room at the tip to collect the semen. Some condoms are lubricated, which helps prevent tears. If you use condoms that aren't already lubricated, apply lubricant inside and outside of the condom. With latex condoms, be sure to use only water-based lubricants, such as K-Y jelly. Don't use petroleum- or mineral-based lubricants, such as petroleum jelly or baby oil. They can weaken a latex condom and cause it to break.

After intercourse, withdraw the penis while holding the base of the condom so that the condom doesn't come off. Then remove the condom and dispose of it.

It's important to use condoms carefully, correctly and consistently. Here are some tips for properly using and storing condoms:

  • Check the expiration date. Don't use a condom after its expiration has passed.
  • Check condoms for damage — brittleness, small tears or pinprick holes — before using.
  • Open the package carefully. Don't use teeth or fingernails.
  • Place the tip of the rolled-up condom over the erect penis. The rolled rim should be on the outside.
  • Gently press the tip of the condom to remove air.
  • Unless the condom has a reservoir tip, unroll the condom down over the entire penis while leaving room — a half-inch space — at the tip to collect the semen.
  • Remove any air bubbles to make sure the condom fits correctly. An air bubble could cause the condom to tear or come off.
  • If you're not circumcised, make sure you pull your foreskin back before putting on the condom.
  • For maximal protection from STDs, use a condom during any sexual activity, whether vaginal, oral or anal. Oral, anal or vigorous vaginal sex increases the chance of condom breakage.
  • Never reuse a condom. If a condom is inside out and does not unroll easily, don't flip it over because there may be semen in it. Use another condom.
  • Store condoms in a cool, dry place. Exposure to air, heat and light increases the chance that a condom will break. Don't keep condoms in a billfold, back pocket or glove compartment for an extended period of time. Friction, perspiration and changes in temperature can hasten condom deterioration.
How effective are condoms at preventing pregnancy?

The breakage rate for condoms is two out of 100. Of every 100 couples who use condoms incorrectly and inconsistently, 15 will experience a pregnancy during the first year of use. Of every 100 couples who use condoms correctly and consistently, only two will experience a pregnancy.

Are there any health risks associated with condoms?

Some people are allergic to latex, and if either partner is allergic, he or she may react to contact with a latex condom. Reactions to latex include rash, hives, runny nose, swelling and constriction of bronchial tubes, and loss of blood pressure.

Where are condoms available?

Condoms are available without a prescription. They're sold in many stores and from vending machines in some restrooms. They cost between 50 cents and $1 each and are less expensive when purchased in bulk. Condoms are also less expensive at Planned Parenthood centers or at other family planning clinics.

Advantages vs. disadvantages of condoms
Advantages Disadvantages
Protect against STDs Require consistent and diligent use
Effective when used correctly May inhibit sexual spontaneity
No side effects, unless you're allergic to latex Spermicidal foams, creams or jellies may be messy
No prescription required  
Inexpensive  
©1998-2009 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.

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