Friday, February 12, 2010

National Condom Week

Condoms have been around in some form or another since before the 15th century (though undocumented forms may have been used as far back as ancient times). Condoms can be used for birth control and disease prevention, and have been made from everything from tortoise shells to treated fabric or paper, to rubber. Today there are a variety of different types of condoms (male and female) on the market made from a number of substances.
  • Latex – this is the natural, durable evolution of the first rubber condoms. It is the most popular material that condoms are made of, however not everyone can use them due to latex allergies.
  • Polyurethane – these are thinner and more sensitive to heat transfer than latex, tend to be odorless and are less allergenic than latex. However, polyurethane tends to be more expensive and breaks more easily in trials.
  • Lambskin – one of the oldest condom materials, lambskin is effective at preventing pregnanacy, but does NOT protect from sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Nitrile – like polyurethane, nitrile is a synthetic substance that is an alternative to latex.

When condoms are used in coordination with lubricant or another substance (such as spermicidal jelly) it is important to read all labels, since some chemicals can decrease the effectiveness of condoms.

Condom use during all sexual activity can prevent the spread of disease and decrease the risk of pregnancy. There are both male and female condoms for use during intercourse and dental dams and flavored condoms are available for oral sex.

According to CDC surveillance studies, 19 million new cases of STDs are transmitted annually, with half of those cases occuring in people aged 15-24 years old. One contributing factor to this high rate of STDs is low condom usage. A 2007 study of college age men showed that 41% reported that they had never used condoms.*

Also, as the frequency of heterosexual couples choosing to engage in oral and anal sex has risen, the tendency of couples to use condoms is “relatively uncommon”. A study in 2007** determined condom use for heterosexual couples and found that:

• Only 6% of men and women used a condom the last time they engaged in oral sex
• Only 25% of men and 16% of women used a condom the last time they engaged in anal sex

Among other STDs, anal sex puts you at higher risk of contracting HIV than vaginal sex. And oral sex is mistakenly perceived as “low risk” sexual contact, when in reality, oral sex can transmit herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia. Recent studies have shown HPV transmitted by oral sex has caused a rise in oropharyngeal cancers.

Studies have shown that condoms are a great way to protect you and your partner from sexually transmitted disease. The CDC website does a great job of summarizing the benefits, including that studies have shown that “latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens.”

The best way to protect yourself is to use a condom every time for every type of sex.

* Partridge JM. Hughes JP. Feng Q. Winer RL. Weaver BA. Xi LF. Stern ME. Lee SK. O’Reilly SF. Hawes SE. Kiviat NB. Koutsky LA. Genital human papillomavirus infection in men: incidence and risk factors in a cohort of university students. Journal of Infectious Diseases. 196(8):1128-36, 2007 Oct 15.

** Leichliter JS. Chandra A. Liddon N. Fenton KA. Aral SO. Prevalence and correlates of heterosexual anal and oral sex in adolescents and adults in the United States. Journal of Infectious Diseases. 196(12):1852-9, 2007 Dec 15.

I hate tests. I have spent countless hours studying, memorizing, writing and re-writing in order to get the highest possible score on my exams in undergrad and in my masters program. I find standardized tests even more repulsive, but the MCAT, GRE and even a certification exam in public health are all necessary for me to become a public health physician. So, I am learning to face the music: test taking is necessary.

Although I have somewhat of a disdain for test-taking, I know that some tests that I will take can actually save my life. Getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs*) is one of those times. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 19 million new cases of STD infections occur every year. To make matters worse, almost 50% of the newly infected cases are of someone between the ages of 15-24 years of age.

As young adults, we should be especially careful when engaging in sexual activity, given the current statistics. A major part of being careful includes regular testing for STDs. Even though you can’t actually “study” for a STD test, you can prepare yourself. Here are some great tips to get ready:

Find a testing facility: Your regular primary care physician can test you for STDs. If you do not have a regular primary provider, your local health department can test you, or direct you to a place to get tested at little to no cost.

Inform yourself: Knowledge is power. If you are unfamiliar with STDs, the CDC provides great fact sheets on the most commonly diagnosed. They include information on symptoms, treatment and prevention.

Know when you should be tested: There is a general schedule to help patients remember when they should be tested for certain STDs. To help you remember to get tested, make your appointments around other important dates; like your birthday or the New Year.

Be proactive: Depending on where you live and where you go to get tested, you may or may not be tested for certain STDs. For example, some health departments or clinics test everyone for HIV, but may not test for HPV. Make sure to ask your health provider what tests that they usually run. If they don’t normally test for something and you want to be checked for it, ASK! It’s your body and your health.

*STDs are also known as STIs, but no matter what you decide to call them…you should definitely GET TESTED!

Heather, Sarah, and Kimberly contributed to this post.

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