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Home / STIs / What you need to know about safe sex: all your questions answered

What you need to know about safe sex: all your questions answered

Find out the answers to frequently asked questions on how to have safe sex and engage in healthy sexual behaviour

On a basic level, safe sex or secure sex refers to protecting yourself from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancy by always using a condom or other form of contraception. However, questions around safe sex can also relate to sex during or after pregnancy, sex during a period, consent, different sex positions or the use of different sex toys. Continue reading to find out the answers to frequently asked questions around secure sex and tips on how to keep yourself safe between the sheets.

Couple lying under white sheets in bed

What is safe sex?

Practising safe sex means protecting yourself every time you have sex, either by using barrier contraceptives such as a condom to prevent the transmission of STIs and for women, using a hormonal contraceptive method to prevent pregnancy. Remember that barrier methods that cover the genitals are the only way to prevent the transmission of STIs (sexually transmitted infections). It is recommended that you always use a condom during intercourse and a dental dam during oral sex even if you are in a long-term relationship, as sexually transmitted diseases can be asymptomatic for long periods of time.

In addition to protecting yourself from infections and unwanted pregnancies, safe sex can also refer to safe sexual behaviour in general, ensuring that all partners are consenting and happy with the sexual acts they are engaging in, and that everyone’s physical and psychological wellbeing is protected while partaking in sexual activities. Safety concerns can relate to whether it is safe to have sex while pregnant, which sex positions are safe for a pregnant woman, whether sex toys can be used during pregnancy, or the safety of having sex during menstruation, for example.

Don’t be afraid to raise any concerns you may have with your partner or a healthcare professional.

How do you practise safe sex?

There are several actions you can take to ensure your sexual safety and to take care of your sexual health:

  • Have regular check-ups and screenings at a sexual health clinic (STI testing and cervical cancer screenings) - STIs cannot usually be detected in tests straight away, so if the infection is recent, it may go undiagnosed
  • Always use barrier contraception (e.g condoms or dental dams) and a form of birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancy
  • Ensure condoms are worn properly and thrown away after use, use latex-free condoms if you are allergic to latex
  • Use water-based lubricants with latex condoms instead of oil-based lubes to avoid weakening the latex and causing the condom to tear
  • Wash before and after sex as this can protect you against infections, like UTIs
  • Get vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus) and hepatitis A and B - hepatitis vaccines are especially recommended for men who have sex with other men
  • Be aware of your partner's sexual history, get tested together and share all relevant information about previous sex partners and any STIs
  • Limit the number of your sexual partners - the more partners you have, the greater the risk of STIs is
  • Do not have sex with a person who has visible signs of an STI (e.g rash or visible blisters in the genital area)
  • If you have been diagnosed with an STI, avoid sexual intercourse until you have had a follow-up examination and the infection is no longer contagious
  • If you have casual sex, always carry condoms with you
  • Be open and honest with your partner about your own sexual history, talk to them about what you like and don’t like - honesty is the key to a healthy sexual relationship
  • Protect yourself from situations where you might engage in risky sex and do something you might later regret, such as sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Do not use intravenous drugs or have sex with a person who uses them
Birth control methods: IUD, contraceptive pills and condom

Can you get an STD with a condom?

The risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases is greatly increased if you have unprotected sex. Although the use of condoms or other barrier contraception does not guarantee that sexually transmitted infections will not be transmitted, the risk of infection will be significantly reduced. You should keep in mind that certain STIs can also be transmitted through skin to skin contact, such as by rubbing your genitals against your partner. HIV can also be contracted through wounds, mouth ulcers or bleeding gums.

Is oral sex safe without protection?

STIs are spread through secretions that carry bacteria or viruses, such as blood, vaginal fluids, and semen. They can be caught through any unprotected oral to genital or oral to anal contact. This is why it is important to use a condom or another barrier contraception method, like a dental dam, during all types of sex, including vaginal sex, oral sex and anal sex. This will help to keep you protected against different sexually transmitted conditions, including chlamydia, genital warts, genital herpes, gonorrhoea, hepatitis B and C, syphilis and HIV.

Can you get an STD from touching someone?

Most STIs do not spread through skin to skin contact alone, however there are exceptions. This means it is possible to catch an STI through touching your partner, such as digital sex (fingering), although the risk is considered lower. The risk is higher if you or your partner have sores, broken or inflamed areas on your skin or in your mouth, such as mouth ulcers.

Some infections, such as HIV or AIDs, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, can also be transmitted through dirty needles or tattoo equipment. However, most sexually transmitted diseases are spread through direct sexual contact with an infected partner. Thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV) may also be transmitted to your partner, although these infections are not classified as STIs.

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Can you have sex on your period?

It is a common misconception that sex during a period is not safe. While some women may not be comfortable with the idea, others have no issues with it. Some women find that it relieves their period cramps and due to heightened sensitivity of the vagina, even intensifies their pleasure.

However, it is important to remember to use contraception during a period. Some studies have shown that the risk for transmission of STIs may be higher during menstruation. An international study from 2018 showed that the use of condoms decreased by 15% during menstruation, which can explain these statistics. The risk for yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis may also be higher due to changes in the vaginal flora. This is another reason to use barrier contraception during period sex.

Can you get pregnant on your period?

Another common myth is that it is impossible to get pregnant while on your period. While some women count on ‘safe days for sex’ to have unprotected sex, it is not a fail-safe method. Although the chances are low, for women with shorter menstrual cycles, for example, it is possible to get pregnant if they have unprotected intercourse on the first day of their period. This is because sperm can stay alive for up to six days after entry, making days 5-7 the most fertile of the cycle for these women.

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If you have irregular periods or experience spotting during your cycle that can be mistaken for a period, protecting yourself from unwanted pregnancy is particularly important.

Is sex safe during pregnancy?

Many women feel anxious about having sex during pregnancy, but in a typical pregnancy, there is no need to worry about the safety of sex while pregnant. As long as you feel comfortable and your doctor or midwife hasn’t told you otherwise, there is no reason to avoid it. In fact, sex can boost your mood, improve your sleep and for some women, orgasms can improve pain and discomfort during pregnancy.

However, there are some situations when sex during pregnancy should be avoided. These include different pregnancy complications, like a history of preterm deliveries or problems with the placenta. You should always check with your doctor or midwife if you are not sure about the safety of sex during your pregnancy.

Pregnancy does not protect against STIs. As STIs can lead to potentially dangerous complications for the woman and the baby, using condom is always recommended, particularly if you are having sex with a new partner while pregnant.

What are safe sex positions during pregnancy?

As pregnancy progresses, many positions can become uncomfortable for the woman because of the weight of the baby. Positions where the woman is on top, lying on her side or being being penetrated from behind can be safer and more comfortable sex positions during pregnancy.

Are sex toys safe during pregnancy?

Like having sex, using sex toys is generally safe during pregnancy. However, if you have a short cervix, doctors are likely to advise against you using any penetrative sex toys.

Make sure practise good hygiene: always clean the toys after use and never share sex toys to avoid STDs and infections.

When is it safe to have sex after giving birth?

There is no strict rule about when it is safe to have sex again after birth, however many healthcare providers recommend that women wait 6 weeks before having intercourse after delivery to avoid infection and to promote healing. Painful sex after birth is very common, and many women may want to wait longer before resuming sex. Everyone is different and there is no need to rush.

When you do decide to have sex again, it is important to remember that it is possible for women to get pregnant as soon as 3 weeks after giving birth, whether breastfeeding or not. Therefore, it is important to think about starting contraception again, even if your period hasn’t returned yet.

When is it safe to have sex after abortion?

It is generally safe to have sex after an abortion whenever you feel ready for it. However, it is advisable to wait until the bleeding has stopped to avoid the risk of infection. This will usually be 1-2 weeks after termination. The same applies to miscarriage.

Pregnant couple lie in bed cuddling

Medically reviewed by Dr. Plauto Filho Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 14-10-2023

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