Condoms: Effective birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases

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Condoms: Effective birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases

To decide if condoms are the best birth control method for you, get the facts on how condoms work, how they're used and how effective they are at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Condoms are nothing new. The earliest illustration of one is more than 3,000 years old. Early condoms were made of linen or the intestines of fish or animals. Condoms became known as rubbers after 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented his process for vulcanizing rubber and factories began mass-producing rubber condoms.

What is it?

A condom is a thin sheath that's 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. A condom that's too tight is more likely to break, and a condom that's too loose may slip off. Using a condom with a spermicidal cream or jelly further decreases the risk of pregnancy. A spermicide is a sperm-killing substance that's inserted into the vagina before intercourse or used as a lubricant on the condom.

How does it work?

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

Does it reduce the risk of STDs?

Yes. By blocking the exchange of body fluids that might be infected, the latex condom provides 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.

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 non-exclusive 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 in penile lesions, 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 you use it?

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.
  • Gently press out air at the tip of the condom before putting it on.
  • Place the tip of the rolled-up condom over the erect penis. The rolled rim should be on the outside.
  • Unless the condom has a reservoir tip, unroll the condom down over the entire penis and leave room — a half-inch space — at the tip to collect the semen.
  • Smooth out any air bubbles to make sure the condom fits correctly. An air bubble could cause the condom to tear or come off.
  • If the man is uncircumcised, make sure the foreskin is pulled 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 can increase the chance of condom breakage.
  • Never reuse a condom. If a new condom is put on 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 because condoms exposed to air, heat and light are more likely to break. Don't keep condoms in a billfold, back pocket or glove compartment for an extended period of time. This can cause condom deterioration and breakage as well.

Is it reversible?

Yes. 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 effective is it at preventing pregnancy?

The breakage rate for condoms is two out of 100. Of every 100 couples who use condoms incorrectly and inconsistently, 14 will experience a pregnancy during the first year of use. Of every 100 couples who use condoms correctly and consistently, only three will experience a pregnancy.

Are any health risks associated with the condom?

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, and swelling, constriction of bronchial tubes and loss of blood pressure.

How much does it cost?

Condoms 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.

What's its availability?

Condoms are available without a prescription. They're sold in many stores and from vending machines in some restrooms.

Advantages Disadvantages
Effective when used correctly Requires consistent and diligent use
Protects against STDs May inhibit sexual spontaneity
No side effects, unless you're allergic to latex Spermicidal foams, creams or jellies may be messy
No prescription required  

Last Updated: 04/19/2005
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