Protect yourself and others

There's a lot you can do to protect your health, your partners' health, and the health of your community.

  • Know Your and Your Partner's Risk

    You know how important it is to educate yourself and your partner about STDs and sexual health. Learning about STDs and sexual health helps you be aware of what you're at risk for, what you should get tested for and how often, what symptoms to look out for, and how to protect yourself and others.

    Getting regularly tested for STDs is important because many STDs can have no symptoms, so there is a chance that you or your partner could be infected without knowing it.

    If you are considering having unprotected sex (meaning sex without a condom), ask your partner first about:

    whether they have an STD
    Whether they've been tested for STDs
    Which STDs they have been tested for and how recently
    Whether or not they have had sex with anyone other than you since they were last tested
    Whether they have been vaccinated for HPV
    Whether they have ever had a herpes outbreak

    It is important to speak up and ask your partner rather than assume they will tell you. There are a lot of people who will be honest if asked, but may find it hard or be embarrassed to bring it up themselves.

    If your partner asks you these same questions, be honest too. They have the right to know their risk for getting a STD and to decide whether or not they're willing to have unprotected sex.

    There are resources online about how to talk to your partners about their risk. Check out It's Your Sex Life, Smart Sex Resource or this PDF from the GYT Campaign.

  • Talking about Sex and Protection

    In general:
    It is much easier to use condoms from the beginning of a sexual relationship, rather than ask partners to start using them once you've already had sex without protection.

    Be prepared:
    If you plan to have sex (or even if you don't), it's smart to keep a condom with you in your purse, backpack, or pocket, and also next to your bed. If you are storing a condom in your pocket, remember to replace it often. If you keep bringing the same condom out with you it's likely to get damaged. It might be exposed to too much heat from your body and the wrapper might get a hole in it.

    Talking about condoms with your partner:
    It is best to talk about condoms before you are naked with your partner. Condoms can be part of a larger conversation about STDs and birth control with your partner, or you can try to work the topic in at some other time. Having the conversation early will prevent you from bringing up condoms once your pants are off.

    If you have not already had a conversation about protection and you find yourself about to have sex, do not worry. It is not too late to tell your partner that you want to protect yourself against STDs. You can bring out your condom from wherever you have it stored. Or, if you do not have one, ask "Do you have a condom?" and if they do not, say "Ah, okay, well we're going to have to keep this PG-13."

    There are websites with more information about sex and protection. Check out Smart Sex Resource, the American Social Health Association, TeensHealth, the Naked Truth, or It's Your Sex Life.

    If you are afraid to talk to your partner because you think they might hurt you, check out Love Is Respect.

  • Using Condoms and Other Barriers

    Learn more about each of the barrier methods below by selecting the specific method on the left.

    Type of Sex Type of Barrier
    Vaginal sex between a man and a woman Male or female condoms
    Oral sex performed on a man's penis Male condoms
    Oral sex performed on a woman's genital area Dental dams
    Anal sex Male or female condoms (if using a female condom, remove the ring that's inside the condom), particularly with the use of additional lubricant
    Anal/oral sex (rimming) Dental dams or latex gloves (if you're using your hands at all)
    Manual stimulation of a man or woman's genitals or anus Latex gloves (in certain situations)


  • Male Condoms

    Male condoms are recommended for use during vaginal sex between a man and a woman, oral sex performed on a man's penis, and anal sex.

    Male condoms are very good at protecting from HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. Condoms may also protect against herpes and syphilis when the condom is covering the outbreak.

    Recent studies have also shown that condom may also give you some protection against HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer.

    The key to protecting yourself against STDs during any type of sexual activity (oral, vaginal or anal) is to use a condom the right way - the way the condom package instructions describe - each and every time you have sex.

    Check the expiration date on the condom’s wrapper to make sure the condom is still good. Just like you do not trust eating old, expired food, it is a good idea not to trust using an old, expired condom. After you have checked that the condom is still good, open the wrapper carefully with your fingers. Opening the wrapper with teeth or scissors might tear the condom.

    We have heard some people say to use two condoms for “extra protection.” This is never a good idea! Use only one condom at a time- using two can cause friction, which will cause the condom to break.

    For more information on how well male condoms work, visit CDC Condom Effectiveness.

    For information on how to put on a condom, watch Planned Parenthood's video or the video by the American Social Health Association.

    To find free condoms near you, check out the condom locator tools on Sexual Health Innovations' resource page called Websites That Locate Sexual Health Services and Products. If there aren't any free condom locations near you, the Sexual Health Innovations' resource page called Websites That Will Mail Things to You lists a bunch of websites that will you condoms for free.

  • Female Condoms

    Female condoms can be used for vaginal or anal sex.

    When thinking about which barrier method to use, pick the female condom so you will not have to worry about using a male condom. Using a female and male condom at the same time is discouraged because friction might cause them to break.

    The female condom is made of a pouch about 6.5 inches in length. One end of the pouch has a small, flexible inner ring and the other end has a larger, flexible outer ring that forms the opening of the condom that rests outside of the body (the vagina or the anus). Like the male condom, the female condom only has one opening.

    The female condom lines the inside of the vagina or anus and helps to protect against STDs and pregnancy (in the case of penile-vaginal sex). Female condoms are as good as male ones at protecting against STDs during vaginal sex, and may be better at protecting against skin-to-skin transmission of STDs such as herpes and HPV, because they cover more skin.

    There are two types of female condoms- the FC2 and the original FC. The FC2 was designed to be quieter than the original, which sometimes can make a weird noise when you are having sex.

    If you use a female condom you do not need to wait until things start getting steamy with your partner. In fact, a female condom can be inserted into the body up to 8 hours before sex.

    When using a female condom for anal sex, be sure to remove the flexible inner ring before you put the condom in the anus. Some people may find a female condom to be uncomfortable. It's all about what works for your body!

    For information on how to use a female condom, watch this animation from FemaleHealthCo.

  • Dental Dams

    Dental dams are thin pieces of latex that protect against STDs when placed over the outside of the vagina or anus for oral sex. Dams act as a barrier between the mouth and outside of the vagina or anus.

    They can prevent STDs spreading both from the mouth of one partner to the genitals of the other (as in the case of oral herpes) or from the genital area of one partner to the mouth of the other (as in the case of genital herpes).

    When using a dental dam, dab a little water or silicone-based lube on the side of the dam that will cover the outside of the vagina or anus. Place the dam evenly over the area while holding the edges of the dam apart with your hands during use.

    A dental dam protects against STDs only if it is used one time and just on one side. Even if you and your partner go for a second round minutes later, grab a new dental dam instead of reusing or flipping over the old one.

    Dental dams aren’t sold in every drug store like condoms are. You might need to look for them online or at your local health clinic or sex shop. However, you can easily make your own! Make your own dam by folding a piece of non-microwaveable plastic wrap in half. Or take an unlubricated condom, cut off the elastic ring, cut along one side using scissors, and flatten it into a rectangle.

    For visual instructions of how to make a dental dam from a condom, check out Healthy Heels.

    For more information about dental dams, visit SmartSex Resource .

  • Latex Gloves

    Latex gloves are great for fingering, fisting, or any other type of sex play.

    Latex gloves can help protect you from skin diseases (like molluscum contagiosum, which can be spread both sexually and non-sexually) or from getting an STD (if one partner has cuts or sores on his/her hand or genital fluids or blood on their hand).

    Latex gloves should only be used with water-based lubricant. Adding lubricant to the glove prevents tearing. Long nails can tear gloves, so keep them short.

    Visit Just Say Yes for more information about latex gloves.

  • Using Lubrication

    Not only does lubrication feel good, it can also help protect you from STDs. Using lubrication keeps a condom from ripping or tearing. It also reduces small cuts and tears in the skin from too much friction, further reducing your risk of spreading STDs.

    How to Use Lubrication

    Once a male condom is on the penis, apply lubrication to the outside of the condom.
    You may also apply lubrication to the vagina and/or anus, before or during sex.
    Where and when to use lubrication is completely up to you - sometimes you may want more lubrication and sometime you may want less.

    Types of Lubrication

    There are many different kinds of lubricants. Common lubricants are:

    Water-based lube: This type is safe to use with latex condoms and silicone sex toys. Water-based lube easily washes away. It tends to dry up and become sticky sooner than silicone-based lube, but adding water or saliva will make it slick again.
    Silicone-based lube: This type is safe to use with latex condoms but is not recommended for use with silicone sex toys. Using silicon-based lube with silicone sex toys may damage the toys over time and make them sticky, which can lead to bacteria growth. Silicone-based lube tends to stay wetter longer than water-based lube and does not get sticky (unless used on silicone toys). Silicone lube is not water-soluble, so it can be harder to wash away.
    Glycerine-free lube: There are also lubricants that do not contain glycerine. Glycerine can cause vaginal irritation in some women; some glycerine-free products may reduce this irritation.

    The best thing to do is just check the package of the lubricant you are buying and see what type it is. Here is a list of common things people try to use as lubricant and what will and won't hurt condoms.

    Safe for latex condoms Not safe for latex condoms
    Glycerin Baby oil
    Water Cold cream
    Wet® Edible oils (olive oil, peanut oil, etc)
    Spermicide Hand or body lotions
    Aloe-9® Massage oils
    Aqualude® Mineral oil
    deLube ® Shortening (Crisco®)
    ForPlay® Suntan oils or lotions
    Gynol® Whipped cream
    KY Jelly® Cornhuskers®
    KY liquid® Bag Balm®
    PrePair® Butter/Margarine
    PrePair®
    Probe®
    Touch®
    Eros
    Pjur®

    For more on using lube, check out Smart Sex Resource, Cosmopolitan, or Men's Health.


  • Getting Vaccinated

    Men and women can get vaccinated against HPV and Hep B. It is important to get vaccinated before you start having sex, in order to limit the chance that you will be infected from a sexual partner. If you have already started having sex, ask your doctor if getting the vaccinations still makes sense.

    Both of these vaccines require getting a series of three shots, spaced out over time. While the first shot will probably protect you from HPV and Hep B, it is important to get all three shots for full protection.

    Because you will not be fully protected right away, it is best to get vaccinated before you are thinking about having sex, and not at the last minute.

    It is recommended that you complete the HPV vaccinations by age 26 and the Hep B vaccinations by age 18, but you can still get the Hepatitis B vaccination if you are over 18.

    The CDC has additional HPV information specific for men and women and for Hep B vaccinations .

    You can search the National HIV and STD Testing Resources website for the nearest location of HPV and Hep B vaccinations.

  • Getting Tested

    Most of us already know that getting tested for STDs will make our health better. There are even more reasons to get tested for STDs.

    Some important examples we have are:

    1. Getting tested can give you peace of mind and help make you calm- whether you have an STD or not, at least you can stop wondering.
    2. You can get information about how to protect your present and future sexual partners.
    3. If you test positive, you will know whether you should let your past partners know that they should get treated and use protection.
    4. You can talk to a health professional about your sexual health. You and your doctor can go over what you are doing to protect yourself from STDs and your doctor can help give you ideas for how to even better protect yourself when you have sex.

    It is important to get regular checkups, even if you have no symptoms. Talk to your doctor about what types of STD test he or she would recommend.

    It is a good idea to be honest with your doctor about your sex life, even if you are embarrassed. Tell them about the type of sex you have, who with, whether or not you use condoms, and whether you're worried about something that happened last night or last month. This last piece is really important because your doctor will probably not ask you about this, and if you had unprotected sex last night or last weekend, it is too soon for a lot of tests to tell whether you are infected- you will have to wait to get tested or get tested again later.

    See our Test Page for more information on where to get tested, when to get tested, how to make sure your test stays private, and how to order a home STD testing kit (available in some areas).

  • Getting Treated

    Getting treated is an important step in protecting you and your partner’s health. If you test positive for an STD, it is essential that you get treated as soon as possible so that you can stay healthy. Some STDs have medicines that cure them, some have treatments that will make you feel better, and some you just have to wait out. A doctor, nurse, or physician's assistant will let you know what you should do after you test positive for an STD.

    If you have an STD, getting treated protects others too. Even if a treatment cannot completely cure you, it is less likely that you will spread the infection. Bottom line, you need to get tested so you can know if you have an STD. If you do, a doctor or other healthcare professional will tell you what to do next.

    If you think you have an STD, check out the Your Risk Page to see if you should get tested. To learn more about each STD, check out our STD Info Page. To find a testing center near you, go to our Test Page.

  • Informing Your Past, Present, and Future Partners

    The main reasons to inform your partners that they might be infected with an STD is that it is your chance to fight back against STDs. It is part of the unspoken pact we make when we have sex with someone. Because wouldn't you want them to tell you?

    We know that each relationship is different. There are some relationships where it is easier to talk about these things, and others that are just more complicated. That's okay. That's why we give you information on how to tell your partners yourself or tell them anonymously on our Inform Page.

    Always consider your own safety before notifying your partners. If you are afraid that your partner might hurt you, notifying them on the phone, anonymously, or not at all might be safer than telling them in person. To talk to someone who understands what to do to be safe, call: 1-800-799-SAFE.

    Your past partners should be told because there is a very good chance that they are infected, and they may be spreading the STD to other people. Telling your partner is not only important for their health but for the health of the entire community. Even if you are angry at them, they should be told.

    Your current partners should be told because being infected with an STD can damage their health, and even if you have been cured for an STD, you can get re-infected by your partners if they do not get treated. Telling current partners can be especially tough if you were infected by someone other than your main partner. There is a good chance you got the STD before you started a serious relationship with your main partner. If not...now is the time to have a difficult conversation.

    Your future partners should be told if you are infected with herpes, hepatitis, HPV, or HIV. Even if you are taking all of your medication, using condoms, and have not had symptoms in years, your partner had the right to know the risk they are taking.

  • Have Lower Risk Sex

    You can have a great sex life and protect yourself and others from STDs by using these methods for lower risk sex:

    Decrease the number of sexual partners you have: This is not just about having sex with fewer people in the long run – it is also about having sex with fewer people over a short amount of time (day, week, or month). People are more likely to spread some STDs right after they are infected, and so by spacing out your sex partners, you are less likely to get and spread STDs.

    Have another type of sex:Consider being sexual in a way that is less likely to spread STDs, like having oral sex or mutual masturbation, rather than something riskier like anal sex or vaginal sex. This is especially important to consider if you or your partner has an STD or you have not been tested for an STD recently. See our Risk Behavior Chart for more information on what sexual behavior can spread what STDs.

    Have lower risk partners: Knowing your partner’s sexual history (how many people they have had sex with, who they have had sex with, if they used protection) can help you figure out how risky it is to have sex with them. Encouraging your partner to get tested and getting tested yourself is an important step in protecting your and your partner's sexual health.

    Use protection: Male condoms, female condoms, dental dams and latex gloves all protect you from STDs. Because so many STDs do not have symptoms, using these is the best way to protect yourself, especially if you do not know if your partner has an STD. (See our “talking about sex and protection” and “using condoms and other barriers.”)

  • HIV & Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis

    HIV is an STD that is caused by a virus. It can be spread through breast milk, semen, vaginal secretions, and blood. A person can have HIV for years without knowing it so it is important for you and your partner to get regularly tested.

    Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (sometimes called PrEP) is a new form of HIV protection. It is a medication that can be taken daily to reduce the risk of getting HIV. If you or your partner test positive for HIV, new research shows that daily pre-exposure prophylaxis use in the uninfected partner along with condom use may reduce the uninfected partner’s chance of getting HIV. Talk to your doctor for more information about PrEP and show him or her the CDC webpage about PrEP at your appointment.

    If you want to learn more, an awesome resource to check out is www.prepfacts.org.

  • Monogamy

    Being in a monogamous relationship means having only one partner at a time. Having only one partner at a time greatly reduces your risk of getting and transmitting STDs. You don’t have to stay with one person forever, or even for a month, but you want to avoid having more then one partner at a time.

    People are more likely to spread STDs right after they have been infected, so if one of your partners gives the STD to you, you are more likely to spread it to a partner you are with that day or that week than to a future partner. If you only have one partner, you can get tested and treated before giving an STD to anyone else.

  • Abstinence

    Not having sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) is the best way to reduce your risk of getting or giving an STD. If you want to have sex be sure to protect yourself by having safe sex.

    There are a lot of things you can do that are sexy but are not considered sex and do not spread STDs, like:

    Kissing (well, kissing can spread oral herpes)
    Massages
    Hand-jobs (stroking someone's penis with your hand)
    Masturbation
    Mutual masturbation (where you masturbate at the same time and in the same room as your partner)
    Online/chat sex
    Phone sex
    Sexting
  • Sexual Pleasure

    The content below is from Smart Sex Resource.

    "Sexual pleasure is an important part of safer sex. Here are some ways to make safer sex more pleasurable:

    Use protection that feels good. Lubricants, condom fit and the material that protection is made from (latex, polyurathane) can make a difference. Try different types of protection to find out what works best for you and your partners. Visit a sex shop or a condom store, talk to staff and get ideas about things that can help make sex feel good and lower the chances of getting an STI.

    Know what feels good for you. Sexual pleasure is different for each person. It can help to learn what feels good to you, what excites you and what you are okay with. Belief and values, as well as privacy, mood and safety, can all be part of it. Try masturbating to get to know yourself. Sex toys can be another way to learn more about sexual pleasure.

    Find out what feels good for your partner. Giving and receiving pleasure is a big part of sex. Ask your partner what they like and do not like. Share with each other things you might like to try. Talk with each other about how to make protection feel better for both of you.

    Be able to say yes and no. It can help make sex more enjoyable if you are able to say what you like. You can say things like "I like this" or "that feels good". It is also important to know you can stop something, even if you are in the middle of sex, that doesn’t feel good or right. You can say “I need to stop”, “this doesn’t feel good” or “I need a minute”. Talking about what you like can get easier with practice.

    Learn more about sexual pleasure. There are ways to learn about how to make sex feel better. If you have a good sex shop in your area, check out the book section. Staff can help you find books to suit your interests. Online sex shops are another way to search out good information and can be a good starting place.

    If you are having problems with sexual pleasure, you may want to find a counselor or some resources. Learn more about sexual concerns."


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So They Can Know is a free resource to help you notify your sexual partners that they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease (STD). We provide resources for partners as well.

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So They Can Know is a project of Sexual Health Innovations, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the sexual health of Americans by promoting more effective use of technology.

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Have you received an email from our site? We want to help you figure out if you are at risk of an STD as well as help you get tested.

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