arrow-small-left Created with Sketch. arrow-small-right Created with Sketch. Carat Left arrow Created with Sketch. check Created with Sketch. circle carat down circle-down Created with Sketch. circle-up Created with Sketch. clock Created with Sketch. difficulty Created with Sketch. download Created with Sketch. email email Created with Sketch. facebook logo-facebook Created with Sketch. logo-instagram Created with Sketch. logo-linkedin Created with Sketch. linkround Created with Sketch. minus plus preptime Created with Sketch. print Created with Sketch. Created with Sketch. logo-soundcloud Created with Sketch. twitter logo-twitter Created with Sketch. logo-youtube Created with Sketch.

Safer sex and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

There are many things you can do to have safer sex. Safer sex means more than preventing STIs or unintended pregnancy. It’s also about communication, consent and respect. Learn more about safer sex, STIs, sexual health checks and what to do if you have an STI.

Topics on this page

Safer sex

Safer sex is not just about protection from unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It’s also about making sure everyone involved feels safe and respected.

Communication is an important part of safer sex. Whether you’re in a long-term relationship or an open relationship with multiple partners, it’s important to talk about consent, contraception and sexual preferences before you have sex. This is also a good time talk about things like boundaries and STIs.

Consent is an important part of safer sex. Sex should only happen when the people involved give enthusiastic consent.

It’s also important to check in during and after sex. This helps everyone to feel safe and respected.

How to have safer sex

Practising safer sex can reduce your risk of getting an STI. Anyone can catch an STI. You can’t tell if a sexual partner has an STI. A strong and healthy person may still be infected. Some people may not even know they have an STI.

It’s important to communicate openly and agree on protection before you have sex.

Note that oral sex doesn’t reduce the risk of getting an STI. Common STIs such as herpes, gonorrhoea and chlamydia can all be transmitted through unprotected oral sex.

Some STIs can even be spread by mouth to mouth contact, so it’s important to consider this before kissing someone.

Sex during your period

It’s important to practise safer sex, even when you have your period. If you have unprotected sex during your period and your partner has broken skin (an abrasion), infections such as HIV or hepatitis can be transmitted to your partner. If you know you have an infection, it’s best to use a condom or dam when having sex during your period.

Condoms and other barrier methods

Condoms are the only form of contraception that are highly effective at preventing STIs.

Condoms and other barrier methods (e.g. dental dams) reduce the risk of body fluids being exchanged during sexual activities.

Body fluids can be exchanged during different sexual activities, including:

  • vaginal sex
  • anal sex
  • oral sex
  • fingers or other objects (e.g. sex toys) in the vagina or anus.

The safest way to have sex is to use condoms (external or internal) or dental dams and water-based lubricant (lube).

It’s important to use a new condom or dam during sex if you change partners or change from vaginal to anal or oral sex. You should also use a new condom if you share sex toys.

Note, condoms or dams won’t protect against STIs if part of the body with infection is unprotected and there’s skin-to-skin contact. Also, some STIs such as herpes, genital warts and pubic lice may still be spread even if a condom is used.

Advantages of using condoms

Apart from reducing the risk of STIs and unwanted pregnancies, condoms are:

  • easy to buy (available in most supermarkets and chemists)
  • cheap (and sometimes free)
  • easy to use
  • easy to take with you or keep in a bedside drawer
  • available in many forms (including ultra-thin varieties to improve sensitivity).

Sex without a condom or dam is only safe in preventing STIs if you and your partner only have sex with each other and neither of you has an STI.

You can talk to your doctor about different types of contraception.

Lubricant (lube)

Using lube can help make sex safer and more pleasurable.

Water-based lubes are safe to use with condoms and sex toys. They are thin and slippery, which reduces friction and the risk of grazes that can contribute to the spread of infections.

Unscented and flavour-free lubes reduce the risk of bacterial vaginosis.

If you experience symptoms such as vaginal dryness due to menopause, lube can help to make sex more pleasurable.

Sexual health

If you’re sexually active, talk to your doctor about how often you should have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) check.

Read about what happens when you go for an STI check.

You can also talk to your doctor about planning a pregnancy. It’s important to be as healthy as possible before pregnancy.

Medicine

You can take certain medicines to help protect you against some STIs.

HPV

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a group of common viruses that can be spread through sexual contact. HPV causes most cases of genital warts and cervical cancer. Around 85% of people will get at least one type of HPV in their lives.

Under the National Immunisation Program, the HPV vaccine is usually given to children aged 12 to 13 at school.

Most people with HPV don’t have symptoms, so it’s important to have regular cervical screening tests.

If you haven’t been vaccinated against HPV or want to learn more about cervical screening tests, talk to your doctor.

HIV

There are also medicines to help protect you from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

If you take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) before being exposed to HIV, it can prevent infection. You can also take post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) within 72 hours of unprotected sexual intercourse to reduce your risk of infection.

Your doctor can give you more information.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

An STI is an infection spread from one person to another during sex. STIs can be spread through semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, blood, skin-to-skin contact and, in some cases, saliva.

There are different types of STIs. For example:

  • viruses
  • bacteria
  • parasites (e.g. pubic lice).

Safer sex can protect against:

  • sexually transmitted infections
  • blood-borne viruses such as Hepatitis B and C.

Some infections can be cured but others must be managed. You can have an STI and not have any symptoms. The only way to know is to have an STI test.

Common STIs

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is an infection caused by bacteria and is the most commonly diagnosed STI in Australia. Anyone who is sexually active can get chlamydia but it’s more common in people under 30 years. Chlamydia can infect the cervix (entrance to the uterus), urethra (where your wee comes out), anus and sometimes your throat and eyes.

If the infection is untreated, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease which can lead to infertility and ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy that develops outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes).

At least 70% of women with chlamydia have no symptoms. But symptoms can include:

  • changes in vaginal discharge
  • painful sex
  • bleeding between periods or after sex
  • burning or stinging when doing a wee.

Treatment for chlamydia is usually a course of antibiotics. It’s also important to avoid sexual contact for seven days after you start treatment.

Chlamydia is very infectious. If you have it, anyone you’ve had sex with is likely to have it too, so it’s important they be tested and treated.

Syphilis

Syphilis is a bacterial infection. You can get it during genital-to-genital contact, through vaginal, anal or oral sex, and by mouth-to-mouth contact. It can also be passed on by touching genitals with your fingers or by sharing sex toys. You can also pass it on to your baby while it’s still in your uterus if you are pregnant.
Syphilis is making a comeback partly due to limited testing through the pandemic and a decrease in condom use.

Syphilis symptoms can be subtle. There are four stages of infection:

  • primary (can include painless sores on the genitals and mouth)
  • secondary (can include a red rash, fever, swollen glands, hair loss and tiredness)
  • latent (there are no symptoms but you may still be infectious)
  • tertiary (you aren’t infectious but the infection can damage multiple organs or even cause death).

Syphilis is usually treated with penicillin, a type of antibiotic. It’s important to avoid any sexual contact for seven days after you start treatment. You may also need to avoid sexual activity with any previous partners from the last 12 months unless they have been tested and treated.

Syphilis and pregnancy

If you get syphilis when you’re pregnant it’s important to seek treatment. Syphilis can cause pregnancy complications such as miscarriage and stillbirth or your baby can die shortly after birth. Babies born with syphilis may also have serious health problems.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is a bacterial infection that is spread mainly by contact with genitals or bodily fluids. The bacteria can infect your urethra, rectum, female reproductive organs, mouth, throat and eyes. Babies can also get the infection during childbirth. If you notice symptoms, such as a burning sensation when you wee, see your doctor.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes is an infection that is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This is the same type of virus that causes cold sores. Symptoms of genital herpes include stinging or tingling in the genital area, blisters or sores on the genitals and anus, and difficulty weeing. Once infected, you can keep getting symptoms throughout your life.

If you think you have genital herpes, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Other STIs

There are many other STIs to be aware of including HIV, genital warts, and hepatitis B and C.

Other infections, such as bacterial vaginosis (BV) and vulvovaginal thrush can also be transferred between partners.

Read more about STIs at Sexual Health Victoria.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. While it’s not an STI, PID can be a complication of some STIs, most commonly chlamydia and gonorrhoea. If not treated early, PID can scar your fallopian tubes. This can lead to infertility or pregnancy complications such as an ectopic pregnancy.

Symptoms of PID can include:

  • pain in your lower abdomen
  • bleeding after sex or between periods
  • heavy or more painful periods
  • smelly vaginal discharge
  • painful sex
  • feeling sick
  • fever.

If you have any of the above symptoms, see your doctor. Treatment usually involves a combination of antibiotics for at least 14 days. It’s also important to avoid sex for at least seven days after starting treatment.

What to do if you have an STI

If you are diagnosed with an STI, it’s important to follow the treatment recommended by your doctor. Take the full course of medicines even if you start to feel better and symptoms disappear.

It’s also important to tell anyone you’ve recently had sexual contact with so they can be tested and treated too.
If you find this hard, the following websites have tips on how to tell your partner and ways you can send an SMS or text without them knowing it’s from you:

Safer sex after a long-term relationship

If you have been in a long-term relationship and, for different reasons, you’re ready to start having sex with other people, it’s important to have safer sex.
STIs are increasing among older Australian women at a faster rate than among younger women. Between 2014 and 2018, the largest increases in the rates of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and infectious syphilis were in women aged 55 to 74 years.

Many older women say they find it awkward to talk about safer sex if they are starting a new relationship. They are also less likely to use condoms. This might be because they:

  • have not used condoms in their past relationships
  • are not worried about getting pregnant
  • do not know about the risk of STIs
  • find sex with condoms uncomfortable, especially if they have postmenopausal changes like dry vagina
  • have an older partner who finds condoms difficult to use or keep on.

If you’re starting a new relationship after many years, it’s important to discuss safer sex with new partners. To be even safer, you can both have a sexual health check before having sex. If any issues make it hard for you or your partner to use condoms, talk to your doctor.

This con­tent has been reviewed by a group of med­ical sub­ject mat­ter experts, in accor­dance with Jean Hailes pol­i­cy.

1
The Royal Women’s Hospital, Human papillomavirus (HPV)
2
Grulich AE, Jin F, Bavinton BR, et al. Long-term protection from HIV infection with oral HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis in gay and bisexual men: findings from the expanded and extended EPIC-NSW prospective implementation study. Lancet HIV. 2021;8(8):e486-e494. doi:10.1016/S2352-3018(21)00074-6
3
Reducing chlamydia associated reproductive complications. Australian Journal of General Practice. Published 2021
4
Australian STI Management Guidelines for Use in Primary Care, updated December 2021
5
Reducing chlamydia associated reproductive complications. Australian Journal of General Practice. Published 2021
6
Department of Health and Aged Care, Chlamydia
7
Lago EG, Vaccari A, Fiori RM. Clinical features and follow-up of congenital syphilis. Sex Transm Dis. 2013;40(2):85-94. doi:10.1097/OLQ.0b013e31827bd688
8
Bourchier L, Malta S, Temple-Smith M, Hocking J. Do we need to worry about sexually transmissible infections (STIs) in older women in Australia? An investigation of STI trends between 2000 and 2018. Sex Health. 2020;17(6):517-524. doi:10.1071/SH20130
9
Bateson DJ, Weisberg E, McCaffery KJ, Luscombe GM. When online becomes offline: attitudes to safer sex practices in older and younger women using an Australian internet dating service. Sex Health. 2012;9(2):152-159. doi:10.1071/SH10164
Last updated: 
11 May 2024
 | 
Last reviewed: 
12 December 2023

Was this helpful?

Thank you for your feedback

Related Topics