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Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Medical Authors: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

The following recommendations concerning condoms and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are based on current scientific information. That information is concerned with how different STDs are transmitted, the physical properties of condoms, the anatomic coverage or protection that condoms provide, and epidemiologic studies of condom use and STD risk. By condoms here are meant male latex condoms. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are now known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV

Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In addition, correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including discharge and genital ulcer diseases. While the effect of condoms in preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is unknown, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer, an HPV-associated disease.

There are two primary ways that STDs can be transmitted. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as well as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis - the discharge diseases - are transmitted when infected semen or vaginal fluids contact mucosal surfaces (for example, the male urethra, the vagina or cervix). In contrast, genital ulcer diseases - genital herpes, syphilis, and chancroid - and human papillomavirus are primarily transmitted through contact with infected skin or mucosal surfaces.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS

Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

AIDS is, by far, the most deadly sexually transmitted disease, and considerably more scientific evidence exists regarding condom effectiveness for prevention of HIV infection than for other STDs. The body of research on the effectiveness of latex condoms in preventing sexual transmission of HIV is both comprehensive and conclusive. In fact, the ability of latex condoms to prevent transmission of HIV has been scientifically established in "real-life" studies of sexually active couples as well as in laboratory studies.

Discharge diseases, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis

Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.

Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis are termed discharge diseases because they are sexually transmitted by genital secretions, such as semen or vaginal fluids. HIV is also transmitted by genital secretions.

Studies have demonstrated that latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens. The physical properties of latex condoms protect against discharge diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis, by providing a barrier to the genital secretions that transmit STD-causing organisms.

Genital ulcer diseases and human papillomavirus (HPV)

Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infections can occur in both male or female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes, syphilis, and chancroid only when the infected area or site of potential exposure is protected. While the effect of condoms in preventing human papillomavirus infection is unknown, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer, an HPV-associated disease.

Genital ulcer diseases include genital herpes, syphilis, and chancroid. These diseases are transmitted primarily through "skin-to-skin" contact from sores/ulcers or infected skin that looks normal. HPV infections are transmitted through contact with infected genital skin or mucosal surfaces/fluids. Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infection can occur in male or female genital areas that are, or are not, covered (protected by the condom).

Protection against genital ulcer diseases and HPV depends on the site of the sore/ulcer or infection. Latex condoms can only protect against transmission when the ulcers or infections are in genital areas that are covered or protected by the condom. Thus, consistent and correct use of latex condoms would be expected to protect against transmission of genital ulcer diseases and HPV in some, but not all, instances.

A number of studies do show an association between condom use and a reduced risk of HPV-associated diseases, including genital warts, cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer.

SOURCES: These recommendations are based on information from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).


Last Editorial Review: 5/24/2007




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