What is a condom?
A condom is a thin, loose-fitting pouch or sheath that protects against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or infections (STIs). As a barrier method of birth control (contraception), condoms prevent pregnancy by keeping semen (sperm-filled fluid) from entering the vagina and fertilizing the eggs. You can buy condoms over the counter at pharmacies, grocery stores and general merchandise stores.
Why is a condom used?
Condoms serve as barriers between bodies. They prevent pregnancy by catching ejaculate (semen) so sperm can’t enter your partner’s uterus. Condoms lower STD risk by stopping or greatly reducing people’s exchange of bodily fluids.
How effective are condoms?
When used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective at preventing STDs such as herpes simplex virus (HSV). In addition, they can reduce the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by 71% to 80%. They also greatly reduce the chance of pregnancy.
Condom sizes range from small to extra-large. It’s important to choose a condom that fits properly. In addition to being uncomfortable, an ill-fitting condom can reduce condom effectiveness, increasing your risk of pregnancy and STDs.
Can condoms get you pregnant?
When used perfectly, condoms are about 98% effective at preventing pregnancy. Typical use averages about 87% effective at preventing pregnancy. In any given year, approximately 15 out of every 100 people who rely on condoms as their only birth control get pregnant. Condoms can tear, leak or slip off.
You can increase a condom’s effectiveness by pairing it with another form of birth control. Options include spermicide (foam or jelly that disables sperm), the pill (oral contraceptives) or a diaphragm. Be sure to discuss birth control options with a healthcare provider to find out what’s most effective for your situation.
What are the different types of condoms?
There are different types of condoms. You should only use one type of condom at a time during sexual intercourse. Using more than one condom creates friction, increasing the odds of a rip or tear. Condom types include:
- External (sometimes called male condoms): These condoms go over the penis to collect ejaculation fluids.
- Internal (sometimes called female condoms): An internal condom goes inside the vagina to keep sperm from entering the uterus. A soft, flexible ring attached to the condom stays outside the vagina for easy removal. Internal condoms may not be as effective as external (male) condoms in preventing STDs.
- Dental dams: These thin latex or polyurethane sheets serve as a barrier between a person’s mouth and a partner’s genitals or anus during oral sex. Dental dams reduce your risk of STDs such as oropharyngeal human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Finger condoms: Sometimes called finger cots, finger condoms are for engaging in sexual penetration with your fingers. Fingering is fairly low-risk, and can’t result in pregnancy. While the chance of catching an STD from fingering is low, a finger condom can further reduce your risk for STDs.
What are condoms made of?
You may hear people refer to condoms as rubbers. That’s because most external (male) condoms are latex, a type of rubber. Some people have a latex allergy that causes skin rashes, itching and other problems. Don’t use latex condoms if you or your partner has a latex allergy. Instead, try:
- Internal (female) condoms, which consist of a synthetic, non-latex material called nitrile.
- External (male) condoms made from polyurethane (a type of plastic).
- Natural skin condoms or condoms made from other natural materials. (Note: Natural condoms prevent pregnancy, but they’re not recommended for the prevention of STDs.)
What’s the difference between lubricated and non-lubricated condoms?
Lubricated condoms have a substance (lube) that helps reduce friction during sex. Friction can increase the risk of a torn or ripped condom. Some condoms are coated with spermicide, a substance that slows down sperm so it can’t reach your partner’s egg. Non-lubricated condoms — as the name suggests — aren’t lubricated.
You can use an over-the-counter lubricant with any condom. With latex condoms, use water-based lubricants — not oil-based lube. Oil weakens latex rubber, increasing the risk of a tear, break or leak.
How do you put a condom on?
You should wait until your penis is erect to put the condom on. Carefully tear open one end of the condom package. Don’t unroll the condom now. Instead, place it on the head (or tip) of your penis so that it will easily unroll down over the length of your penis. (It’s easy to mistakenly try to start unrolling the condom inside out, so check first to make sure it’s correct.)
Leave about 1/4 inch of room at the tip and squeeze the air out of the top to form an empty nipple for the sperm to collect in. Some rubbers have a nipple built in. Never use Vaseline or mineral oil as a lubricant with a latex condom. You can buy pre-lubricated condoms. Or, use water-based lube, saliva, or foam to reduce friction.
Risks / Benefits
What are the benefits of using condoms?
For sexually active people, condoms are the only way to protect against STDs. They can also prevent pregnancy.
Keep in mind, while condoms greatly reduce your risk for pregnancy and STDs, they aren’t a foolproof solution. There is no type of condom that prevents pregnancy or STDs 100% of the time. This is why many people choose to use spermicide foam or gel as well as condoms.
What are the risks of using condoms?
Condoms can break, tear or slip off, exposing you to another person’s bodily fluids. If this happens, you have a higher risk of an STD or unwanted pregnancy. Other potential problems include:
- Latex allergy.
- Urinary tract infections from spermicide-lubricated condoms.
- Vaginal or penile irritation.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call my healthcare provider?
You should call your healthcare provider if you need emergency contraception or STD testing or if you show signs of:
- An STD.
- A urinary tract infection.
- A latex allergy.
Frequently Asked Questions
How old do you have to be to buy condoms?
People of any age, including teens, can buy condoms. You don’t have to be 18, and a cashier legally can’t refuse to sell them to you.
Do condoms expire?
Yes. Condoms have expiration dates stamped on the packaging. You should never use a condom after it has expired.
It’s also important to store condoms in a cool, dry place. Don’t keep them in your wallet, purse or pocket where they can become bent or creased.
If you open a condom that feels sticky, dry or stiff, don’t use it. Get a new condom.
How long do condoms last?
Depending on the type of material the condom is made from, they can last between one and five years. Always check the expiration date printed on the packaging.
How do condoms break?
Condoms can break if they come in contact with sharp objects like jewelry, piercings, teeth or fingernails. They can also rip if you don’t use enough lubrication.
What should I do if a condom breaks?
Women concerned about pregnancy can use over-the-counter emergency contraception, sometimes referred to as Plan B® or the morning-after pill. Your healthcare provider can prescribe an even stronger pill or insert a copper intrauterine device (IUD) to stop conception.
When used within 72 hours of intercourse, emergency contraception is up to 89% effective at preventing pregnancy. You should also talk to your provider about STD and HIV testing.
When were condoms invented?
People have used condoms in some form since the ancient world. The Ancient Egyptians were the first to use them to protect themselves against bilharzia, a parasitic worm. Ancient Romans used animal bladders as condoms to protect women from venereal diseases.
Charles Goodyear, scientist and creator of vulcanized rubber, is credited with the invention of the modern condom in 1855.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you’re sexually active, using a condom correctly and consistently is the only way to ensure you don’t get or transmit an STD. Condoms can also prevent pregnancy when used correctly and consistently. Unfortunately, condoms aren’t foolproof. They can rip, tear, leak or slip off. If this happens, talk to your healthcare provider about emergency contraception options and STD testing. Condoms come in many different types, styles, textures and sizes. You and your partner may need to try different ones before finding the best condoms for you both.
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