Can you catch an STI/STD with a condom?

Liz Wood Alphabiolabs

By Liz Wood, Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 30/11/2023

In this guide, we discuss how condoms can help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the different types of condoms available, and when to use them to reduce the risk of infection.
Table of contents
  • What is a condom? How does it work?
  • What is a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?
  • How do STIs/STDs spread?
  • What are the different types of condoms?
  • How do you use condoms?
  • Do condoms protect against STIs/STDs?
  • When should you use a condom?
  • Can you get an STI/STD when using a condom?
  • How can you prevent a condom breaking?
  • What are the advantages of condoms?
  • What are the disadvantages of condoms?
  • Where can you get condoms?
  • How can I get tested for STIs/STDs?

What is a condom? How does it work?

A condom is a form of contraception – known as a ‘barrier’ method – used during sexual activity to prevent pregnancy and protect against STIs/STDs.

There are two types of condoms made for this purpose: external condoms, which are worn on the penis, and internal condoms, which are worn inside the vagina.

Condoms are mostly used to stop semen from coming into contact with the other person during penetrative sex (vaginal/anal), but can also be used as a barrier during other forms of sexual activity including genital touching, and oral sex.

They are usually made from very thin latex, polyisoprene, or polyurethane.

What is a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?

A sexually transmitted infection (STI) – sometimes referred to as a sexually transmitted disease (STD) – is an infection that is most commonly passed on during sexual activity, especially if unprotected (i.e. if no condom is used).

This can include infections that are transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, sexual touching, or via oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Some STIs can even be passed on to unborn babies during pregnancy and childbirth.

How do STIs/STDs spread?

The way STIs/STDs spread depends on the type of infection you have.

Many STIs are spread through bodily fluids (semen, vaginal fluids, blood).

However, some STIs (e.g. genital herpes, syphilis) can also be spread via skin-to-skin contact, including genital touching without penetration.

Certain STIs can also be passed from mothers to their babies during pregnancy and childbirth. These include HIV, syphilis, genital herpes, hepatitis B, gonorrhoea and chlamydia.

What are the different types of condoms?

There are two main types of condoms available: external (male) condoms, and internal (female) condoms.

Male condoms

External condoms are worn over the penis and are designed to prevent pregnancy by stopping sperm from reaching the egg.

When used correctly, they are also effective at preventing the spread of STIs via bodily fluids during sex (vaginal, anal, and oral sex).

Male condoms are usually made from very thin latex, polyisoprene, or polyurethane, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Female condoms

Internal condoms are worn inside of the vagina and are designed to prevent pregnancy by stopping sperm from reaching the womb.

As with male condoms, they are also effective at reducing the risk of STIs when used correctly.

Female condoms are usually made from synthetic latex or latex.

How do you use condoms?

How condoms are used depends on whether you are using male condoms or female condoms.

This is because male condoms are worn on the penis, while female condoms are worn inside the vagina.

Information on how to use condoms correctly can be found at www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/.

Do condoms protect against STIs/STDs?

When used correctly, condoms can lower the risk of STIs being passed on during sexual contact.

This is because condoms act as a barrier, reducing the risk of STIs spreading via bodily fluids (sperm, vaginal fluids etc.).

However, it’s important to remember that some STIs can infect parts of the body that condoms do not cover.

This means that although condoms can reduce the risk of catching or passing on an STI, they do not offer guaranteed protection from all infections. Certain factors can also impact the effectiveness of condoms – See ‘Can you get an STI/STD when using a condom?’

If you are sexually active, regular sexual health testing can help you ensure you remain clear of any infections or that they are detected early, so that you can seek the correct treatment.

For further guidance on protecting yourself against STIs, visit www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/.

When should you use a condom?

It is recommended that you use a condom every time you have sex, to reduce the risk of catching or spreading STIs via bodily fluids.

This includes during penetrative sex (vaginal and anal sex), oral sex, and when using sex toys.

Can you get an STI/STD when using a condom?

When used correctly, condoms are effective at reducing the spread of STIs/STDs.

However, it’s important to remember that some STIs can infect parts of the body that condoms do not cover. This means that although condoms can reduce the risk of catching or passing on an STI, they do not offer guaranteed protection from all infections.

Other factors that can impact the effectiveness of condoms include:

  • If the condom is damaged/torn, allowing bodily fluids to get through
  • If the condom slips off during sex
  • The use of oil-based lubricants (e.g. lotion, baby oil, Vaseline). This can damage condoms made from latex or polyisoprene
  • If skin-to-skin contact occurs before the condom is put on (e.g. during genital touching)
  • The use of certain medications to treat infections (e.g. creams), which can damage latex or polyisoprene condoms. Your GP or local sexual health clinic will be able to offer guidance on the best condoms to use if you are being treated for an infection

For more information on condoms, including their effectiveness, visit www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/

How can you prevent a condom breaking?

Here are just a few ways to reduce the risk of a condom breaking:

  • Use a lubricant – condoms are usually sold lubricated, but additional lubricant can be useful – especially during anal sex – to reduce the chance of breakage
  • Avoid oil-based lubricants such as moisturisers, lotions, or petroleum jelly (Vaseline), which can damage condoms made from latex or polyisoprene. Choose a water-based lubricant instead, as these are safe to use with all types of condoms
  • Do not use the same condom more than once
  • Do not use more than one condom at a time
  • Do not use condoms that are out-of-date – always check the use-by date shown on the packaging
  • Follow instructions to ensure the condom is fitted correctly before having sex

What are the advantages of condoms?

There are several advantages to using condoms, including:

  • When used correctly, they can help protect you and your sexual partner(s) from certain STIs, including HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhoea
  • They are easily available
  • They are available in a variety of shapes and sizes
  • They are only needed when you have sex, so can be used without any need for prior planning

What are the disadvantages of condoms?

Some disadvantages of using condoms, include:

  • Allergic reactions – although rare, some people are allergic to latex, plastic, or spermicides found on condoms
  • Breakage – although condoms are designed to be strong, they can tear if used incorrectly. For this reason, it’s important to follow the instructions and ensure the condom is fitted correctly before you have sex

Visit www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/ for more information.

Where can you get condoms?

Condoms can be purchased from a variety of places including supermarkets, pharmacies, petrol stations and online retailers.

You can also get condoms for free at sexual health clinics, as well as some young people’s services and GP surgeries.

Use this free NHS tool to find services offering free condoms near you.

How can I get tested for STIs/STDs?

In addition to using condoms each time you have sex, regular STI testing can help keep your sexual health in check and prevent the spread of infections to other people.

Testing can also help ensure any infections are detected early, so that you can seek the correct treatment via your GP or local sexual health clinic.

Our home STI/STD test kits have been designed to allow you to collect your own sample quickly and easily at home. Depending on which test you choose, you will need to provide a urine sample, vaginal swab sample, lesion swab sample, or a finger-prick blood sample.

Your test kit will contain everything you need to collect your samples and return them to our UK laboratory for analysis.

However, if you are experiencing symptoms that are causing severe pain and discomfort, or that require a face-to-face examination, we advise you to contact your GP or local sexual health clinic as soon as possible.

Please note: you must be at least 16 years of age to purchase a home STI test kit from AlphaBiolabs.

Order an STI test kit

At-home STI testing you can trust, from just £29.

Liz Wood

Liz Wood

Health Testing Specialist at AlphaBiolabs

Liz joined AlphaBiolabs in 2021, where she holds the role of Health Testing Specialist.

As well as overseeing a range of health tests, she is also the lead on several validation projects for the company’s latest health test offerings.

During her time at AlphaBiolabs, Liz has played an active role in the validation of the company’s Genetic Lactose Intolerance Test and Genetic Coeliac Disease Test.

An advocate for preventative healthcare, Liz’s main scientific interests centre around human disease and reproductive health. Her qualifications include a BSc in Biology and an MSc in Biology of Health and Disease.

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