Safer sex practices aim to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and diseases. Because sex always involves some risk of STIs, there is no such thing as completely safe sex, so most experts prefer the term “safer sex practices.”

STIs are relatively common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 20% of the U.S. population had an STI on any given day in 2018. Additionally, The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that more than half of Americans will have an STI at some point during their lives.

Safer sex practices can lower a person’s risk of getting an STI. Talking about STIs, sexual history, and safer sex can foster healthy communication and consent between partners.

Read more to learn about how to have safer sex, considerations with a partner with HIV, and more.

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Reducing the frequency that a person has high risk sex can lower their chances of acquiring an STI. High risk sex is any sexual act or behavior that can lead to unintended results, such as having sex without barrier protection. Some options for reducing risk during sex include:

  • choosing nonpenetrative options, such as manual stimulation, over penetrative sex
  • trying lower contact options such as mutual masturbation
  • having fewer sexual partners
  • talking with a partner about their sexual partners and STI status
  • undergoing regular STI testing
  • avoiding sex with a partner who has open sores or warts
  • treating any STIs and not having sex until treatment is complete

The following strategies can help minimize the risk for people who choose oral, vaginal, or anal sex:

Safe oral sex practices

Oral sex is not a risk-free sex practice because a person comes into contact with another individual’s bodily fluids.

While the risk of contracting HIV from oral sex is likely lower than that of penetrative sex, a person can contract STIs, including herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. People who contract chlamydia or gonorrhea from oral sex may develop a throat infection rather than a genital infection. However, these infections are typically less dangerous and are easily treatable.

To reduce the risk of STIs from oral sex, a person can use a barrier between the mouth and the genitals. People can also use external condoms for penises and dental dams for vaginas.

Learn more about oral sex and STIs.

Safe vaginal sex practices

Vaginal sex usually means more contact with bodily fluids than oral sex.

To reduce the chance of pregnancy, people can use various forms of contraception, such as intrauterine devices, hormonal birth control pills, and implants. However, these methods will not protect against STIs.

The only form of protection against STIs is physical barrier methods. For penetrative sex, people can use external condoms that go over the penis or internal condoms that go inside the vagina.

Safe anal sex practices

Health experts consider anal sex a higher risk sexual practice because it poses a greater risk of HIV.

Because the anus is not self-lubricating, tiny tears can increase the risk of transmission. Bacteria in the anus may also spread infections.

While the risk is higher for the receptive partner, other partners can still contract STIs.

To reduce the chance of transmission, the penetrative partner should wear a condom. Using a condom-friendly lubricant can reduce the risk of microtears that can spread infections. Additionally, using preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can reduce the risk of contracting HIV.

Having safer sex does not have to be difficult, and feeling safe and comfortable can make sex more enjoyable for all partners. Several simple tips can make sex safer, including:

  • Undergoing regular STI testing: For example, a person might get STI testing once a year on their birthday or every time they start having sex with a new partner.
  • Communicating openly: Practice open, honest sexual communication with all partners before having sex.
  • Preparing barrier protection: Choose a brand of condoms that a person likes and can afford. Ensure they are always available by putting them in the car, purse, and bedside table.
  • Prioritizing protection: Practice using condoms until putting one on feels comfortable and easy. Incorporate condoms into foreplay, so they feel like a natural part of sex.

Read more about getting tests for STIs.

There is no entirely safe sex with an HIV partner. However, this does not mean people with this virus cannot have sex. Current HIV treatment methods have made it possible for people with HIV to reach an undetectable stage, meaning the disease is nontransmissible. With the appropriate precautions, individuals with HIV can have a healthy and active sex life.

Some safe sex practices that reduce the chance of transmitting HIV include:

  • Using PrEP: The partner who does not have HIV should take PrEP within 72 hours of sex. Most insurance covers PrEP, and people with Medicare could get it for free or at a low cost.
  • Taking HIV medication: People with HIV should take their medication as a doctor prescribes. Antiviral drugs can reduce the viral load of HIV in the blood, reducing the risk of spreading the disease.
  • Considering low risk sex: These include outercourse, mutual masturbation, and clothed humping.
  • Getting tested: Other STIs and STDs may increase the risk of spreading HIV, so people should undergo regular testing. Individuals should also get testing for HIV, as early diagnosis can improve treatment options.
  • Using barrier protection: Includes internal condoms, external condoms, and dental dams.

People should contact a doctor if they:

  • develop any STI symptoms
  • need STI testing
  • need advice on preventing the spread of HIV or getting a prescription for PrEP
  • want to know their risk of contracting or spreading an STI
  • experience STI symptoms that do not improve with treatment

All sex carries some amount of risk. However, people can decrease their chances of getting or transmitting an STI by using barrier protection, communicating with sexual partners, and receiving regular testing.

People who wish to learn more about reducing their risk should consult a medical professional.