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Just How Effective Are Condoms?

For years you’ve likely heard that if you wear a condom, you’re practicing safe sex. But do condoms really make sex safe or do they just make it less risky?

When thinking about the potential risks that sex involves, sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs or STIs) and unplanned pregnancy probably come to mind.


The CDC reports that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur in the US every year and that half of those infected are between the ages of 15 and 24. These STIs and STDs can be spread through all kinds of sex, including vaginal, oral and anal.

You’ve probably heard that condoms will help prevent STIs and STDs. It’s true that condoms can be effective at reducing your risk of contracting an STD when used consistently and correctly. However, according to the CDC, condom use cannot provide absolute protection against any STD.

What you may not have heard about condoms when it comes to STIs is that condoms can have varying levels of effectiveness, depending on how the STIs are transmitted. Some infections, such as ones that are passed by skin-to-skin contact (like HPV and herpes), can still be passed from person to person because the condom does not prevent all skin contact.


When it comes to condoms as contraceptives, maybe you’ve heard of studies indicating that condoms are 98% effective at preventing pregnancy. However this effectiveness rate is with perfect use, which means they must be used consistently and correctly.

This same report from the CDC also shows that with typical use, which takes into account that people use condoms inconsistently and incorrectly, 18% of women experience an unintended pregnancy within the first year of use. That’s nearly 1 in 5 women.


These words come up over and over again when it comes to condom usage. To be most effective for reducing the risk of both pregnancy and STDs, condoms have to be used consistently and correctly, according to the CDC. Consistently means every time you have sex, for all kinds of sex (vaginal, oral and anal). Correctly means throughout the entire sex act, from start of sexual contact to finish.

So if perfect use is consistent and correct, this may make you want to ask –

Are people consistently using condoms? The latest CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that among the currently sexually active high school students nationwide, 40.9% reported that they or their partner had not used a condom during last sexual intercourse.

The American College Health Association survey for Spring 2015 found that of sexually active undergraduate students, only 26.1% reported always using condoms. Further, studies have found that rates of condom use decrease with alcohol use.

Are people correctly using condoms? One study compiled data on common condom usage errors. It found that between 13.6% and 51.1% of people reported making the most common error – not using the condom from start to finish. This study also looked at ten other common errors.

So, it seems that perfect use of condoms is difficult to come by. Do you trust yourself and your partner to always use condoms and use them correctly?

While they can make sex less risky, condoms definitely don’t make sex safe. According to the CDC, the best way to avoid giving or getting an STD is abstinence or being in a long-term relationship with only one uninfected partner. They also recommend reducing your number of sex partners as a way to help decrease your risk for STDs.


If you’re concerned about a potential pregnancy or STI, we at Valley Women’s Clinic are here to help. Because we care about you and your health, we offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to confirm pregnancy. We also offer STI testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea at no charge to our clients. Request an appointment at our Blacksburg or Radford clinic.

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