A condom is a method of birth control that works by forming a barrier and blocking the route that sperm would take to fertilize an egg. It also helps prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.

Use of a condom can effectively reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, and it offers some protection against genital warts and herpes.

There are male and female condoms, and they can be made from latex rubber, polyurethane, or lambskin. The male condom is more commonly used. It is sometimes referred to as a “rubber” or “prophylactic.”

Used correctly, condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, but since people do make mistakes, they are around 82 percent effective in actual use. Because of this, people are advised to use another form of contraceptive with the condom.

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A condom creates a physical barrier that prevents the sperm from reaching the egg. The barrier makes sure fertilization and pregnancy do not occur.

Condoms are mainly from very thin latex rubber or polyurethane, and they contain a lubricant and a spermicide that either destroys or damages the sperm. Extra spermicide is also available in most pharmacies.

To use a condom effectively, it should be placed before the penis touches the vagina, in other words, before skin-to-skin genital contact occurs. This is because sperm can come out of the penis before ejaculation.

The use of condoms can significantly reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Planned Parenthood suggest using them for vaginal, oral, and anal sex, as an STI is not only spread through the genitals.

Using a condom with another type of contraceptive, such as the contraceptive pill, offers additional protection from both pregnancy and STIs.

The condom must be placed correctly before sexual contact is made, and carefully removed immediately after ejaculation.

Condoms are widely available from pharmacies, drug stores, and health centers.

Before using a condom, it is important first to check that it has not passed its expiry date and that it does not feel dried out.

To apply the condom, the penis must be erect. Hold the bulb of the condom between the finger and the thumb, making sure it is the right way round, so that it will unroll down the penis. The rolled-up ridge needs to be on the outside, not the inside.

Make sure there is no air trapped inside, by holding the bulb at the end. While still holding the bulb, place the condom over the head of the penis.

Gently unroll the condom all the way down the penis. If the condom does not unroll, it has probably been placed the wrong way round, inside out. In this case, get a new condom and start again.

Immediately after ejaculation, before the penis has lost its erection, the man should withdraw from his partner, holding the condom in place to prevent leaking. He can then pull the condom off the penis slowly and gently, being careful not to spill the contents.

Before any further sexual contact, the man should wash his hands and use a new condom, even if he is not planning to ejaculate again. Never try to re-use a condom.

A female condom, or femidom, is used by a woman. A female condom consists of a polyurethane sheath with a flexible ring at each end. It is open at one end.

As with a male condom, it is important to check that the device has not passed its expiry date.

While holding the soft inner ring between the finger and the thumb, place the closed-end ring into the vagina.

Push the condom as far into the vagina as possible, using two fingers. The outer ring should always remain lying against the outside of the vagina. If it goes into the vagina during sex, it needs to be adjusted so it is outside again.

When the penis goes into the vagina, it is important to check that it does not slip in between the condom and the vaginal wall.

After use, carefully twist the condom and pull the end of it to remove it, making sure no sperm enters the vagina.

Female condoms are less widely available than male condoms.

Important points to remember are:

  • never to reuse any type of condom, and use a new one every time, even soon after
  • to protect the environment, never flush any type of condom down the toilet
  • never to use a condom that has passed its expiry date

Using both types at once is not advised.

Condoms have a number of benefits.

Male condoms:

  • are effective and reliable in preventing pregnancy, if used correctly
  • they reduce the risk of STI transmission
  • they are widely available
  • no advance preparation is needed, so they can be used for unplanned sex
  • they are available in different sizes

There no side effects, unless the user is allergic to latex rubber, spermicides, or plastic. A person who is allergic should look for products made with other materials, such as lambskin.

Female condoms:

  • may be inserted up to 8 hours before sex
  • give the woman control over her sexual health
  • can be used during a menstrual period
  • significantly lower the risk of STI transmission
  • may lower the risk of developing cervical cancer as they can protect against infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)

Using a condom has some disadvantages compared with other types of protection, especially if they are not used correctly.

In a year, 18 in every 100couples who use a male condom will become pregnant, and 21 in every 100 couples who use a female condom. This is partly due to human error, such as forgetting to use one.

Apart from having a higher failure rate, the female condom is also less widely available.

Errors that can cause a condom to fail include:

  • Using the wrong size
  • Accidentally tearing the material when opening the package, or during application or use
  • Applying the wrong kind of lubricant

Oil-based lubricants, some creams, baby oil, and petroleum jelly cannot be used with a condom. Only water-based lubricants should be used.

Similarly, some creams, suppositories, or pessaries used for treating thrush can reduce the contraceptive qualities of a condom.

Condoms should be kept away from direct light and heat as this may increase the chance of them breaking.

Some people feel embarrassed about using a condom, but they are a safety device that offers important protection.

Advice from the American Family Children’s Hospital includes the following tip: “Make it clear that you won’t have sex without a condom.”

One problem is that stopping to apply a condom breaks the sequence of events during foreplay and sexual activity. This can be resolved by incorporating the placing of the condom as part of the foreplay.

Some men with erectile dysfunction may find this worsens their symptoms if they have to interrupt the sexual act to put the condom on. The interruption may make it difficult to sustain the erection. One study has found that loss of erection due to condom use may lead to risky sexual behavior.

A condom is only 95 percent to 98 percent reliable even if used correctly, so users are advised to combine two methods of contraception, for example, condom use with a spermicide, to prevent pregnancy and guard against disease.

Latex allergy

Lambskin condoms have existed for a long time, possibly since the Roman Empire. Some people prefer them because the material is better at transmitting body warmth and tactile sensation, and they are less allergenic. However, they are expensive, and while they can prevent pregnancy, they do not protect against disease.

Other materials that replace latex in condoms include polyurethane, polyisoprene, and nitrile.

Modern materials are better at preventing the transmission of an STI.

Condoms are available without prescription from drugstores and other outlets. They cost between $0.50 and $1.00 each, and buying several in a box is cheaper. Many health centers offer them free of charge.