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An STI is caused when a bacteria, virus, or parasite is passed from one person to another during sexual contact. Some kinds of sex have a lower chance of passing STIs. For example, the chance of passing an STI is much less with mutual masturbation than with unprotected genital sex.
There are a number of ways to lower your chances of getting or passing an STI:
Barriers: When used correctly, barriers like condoms, dental dams, and gloves lower the chance of STIs. However, barriers don’t work for everyone. For some people, condoms can reduce sensation or make it difficult to get or keep an erection. An internal (female) condom can sometimes help with this.
Medication: It is possible to lower the chances of getting or passing HIV by taking antiretroviral medication.
People living with HIV can take medication (HAART) to reduce the amount of virus in their body (viral load) and lower the chance of passing HIV to a partner.
People who are HIV negative can also take medication to lower their chance of getting HIV. Medication taken before exposure (pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP) or soon after exposure (post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP) can prevent a person from getting HIV.
Other medications that prevent STIs include:
- HPV vaccine: stops genital warts and some strains of HPV that cause cancer.
- Antiviral medications: reduce the chance of passing on herpes.
- Hepatitis A and B vaccines.
Regular STI testing: It’s important to diagnose and treat an STI early on to prevent complications. A person who learns they have an STI can prevent passing it to a partner by taking medication before having sex again.
People with multiple partners, or who are between sexual relationships, should test for and treat any STIs before having sex with a new partner.
Some ways of preventing STIs, like condoms, also stop unwanted pregnancy. However, not all forms of birth control will stop STIs. For example, hormonal contraceptives (like the pill) will not protect against STIs. Lambskin condoms will prevent pregnancy, but do not prevent HIV transmission.
Emergency contraception (or the “morning after pill”) will reduce the chance of getting pregnant if taken within 3 days (72 hours) of having unprotected sex.
Sex Toys: Because many items can be used as sex toys, there are things to think about to safely use or share them. Some ways to lower the chance of physical harm from sex toys include making sure they do not have sharp edges, and that they have a flange (or flare) at the end so they don’t get lost in the rectum or vagina.
With some physical disabilities, people can have decreased sensation in their genital area. Tissues in the anal area can also have less sensation. In these cases, take extra care to prevent tissues from being harmed during sex or when using sex toys.
Medical issues: People who have major surgery may wonder when they can have sex again. Talk with your health care provider to find out when it is safe for you to have sex.
Safer sex includes taking care of your emotional well-being. While sex can be enjoyable for many people, it can also lead to fear, anxiety and worry for some people. If you find yourself feeling this way, think about talking to someone you trust, like a good friend, family member or counsellor.
Society: Some cultures or social settings have strong beliefs about sex and sexuality, including what is “normal” and “not normal”. For some people, not following these beliefs can cause strong emotions. People may feel shame and guilt about who they are or their sexual activities, or fear being rejected by their community.
Fear of STIs: Some people worry a lot about getting an STI, or about passing an STI to a partner. This fear can take away from the pleasure of sex and can also have an impact on daily life. Take some time to learn about the chances of getting an STI with different types of sex, and what you can do if you have a lot of worry and anxiety about STIs.
Body image, disability and sexuality: People who are aging, living with disabilities, or whose body shape doesn’t match social “ideals” may feel excluded from exploring their sexuality or sexual experiences.
Emotional connection: Sex can create strong emotions which may not always be felt by the other person. For many people, sex is linked to feelings of love and connection. For others, sex is more about fun and pleasure, and may not involve emotional connection. These differences could lead to confusion and hurt. Being aware of what sex means to you, what you want, and talking about expectations with your partners can help to avoid emotional pain.
Wanting different things: People can have different likes and comfort levels around sex. It is good to know what types of sexual activity you are comfortable with, talk about them with your partner, and stick to those activities.
Options for Sexual Health – safer sex resources and information
CATIE – sexual health and safer sex
HealthLink BC – safer sex information
Womynsware – Tips for taking care of sex toys
Calgary Sexual Health – information on sexuality and aging
Scarleteen – sex and disability: no big deal
Scarleteen – sex and disability: resources