Are there certain sexual practices which might put you more at risk of contracting an STI?
In a word, yes.
These can range from the type of sexual act you tend to engage in, to personal sexual hygiene.
Here, we will address the particular factors which might increase your risk of catching an STI, and what you can do to help make sex safer:
Many people consider oral sex to be a low risk practice when it comes to STIs.
But, although it may be statistically safer than anal and vaginal intercourse, it is certainly not risk-free.
If performed or received without sufficient protection, such as a condom or dental dam, a range of STIs can be transmitted. The most common orally contracted STIs include gonorrhoea, chlamydia and syphilis.
The presence of ulcers or lacerations in the mouth could also increase the risk of transmission of bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV, although this is less common.
If you have the human papillomavirus (HPV) and have active cold sores on the mouth area then it is possible to transmit the disease to your partner’s genitals via oral sex.
Protection can be used to reduce the chances of spreading infection but it won't guarantee complete safety as the condition is passed on via skin to skin contact and the infected area might not always be fully covered.
Anal Sex Practices
Anal sex which involves unprotected penetration comes with a particularly high risk of spreading STIs.
This is because the lining of the anus is thin and can be easily punctured, allowing sexual secretions to be in direct contact with the blood stream.
The infections which can be transmitted in this manner include chlamydia, gonorrhoea, hepatitis B, HIV, syphilis, genital herpes and genital warts.
Vaginal Sex Practices
STIs can be passed on at any point during unprotected vaginal intercourse.
The transfer of semen and vaginal discharge is a conduit for STIs.
It is important to note that if no protection is used during sex, the secretions produced by the vagina or penis can pass on infections throughout sexual contact; not just at the point of ejaculation.
Many people believe that by removing the penis from the vagina prior to ejaculation they are protecting themselves, however this still carries the same risk.
By having unprotected vaginal sexual intercourse you are at risk of syphilis, genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV and genital warts.
There are some STIs which still carry a risk even when protection is used, including genital herpes and genital warts, which are transferred by skin-to-skin contact.
Where such infections are present, a person should avoid having sex until the infection has been treated and sent into remission.
Poor sexual hygiene may also leave you at risk from STIs.
The vagina is home to numerous bacteria which help to protect and maintain a healthy environment. However this careful balance can be easily disturbed.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) can occur when the natural bacterial balance of the vagina is upset, leaving it less acidic and therefore open to infection.
Women will produce clear or white discharge throughout their menstrual cycle, which serves to keep the vagina lubricated and clean. However, closer attention should be paid to the discharge if it starts to produce a foul smell or change colour, as it could indicate an infection and require medical treatment.
Those with BV are more at risk of contracting STIs such as chlamydia because the condition upsets the body’s ability to fight off other infections.
Herpes is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. Once contracted symptoms will go through phases of activity and dormancy, and can be exacerbated by poor hygiene.
The condition is spread by skin to skin contact, so if left untreated the virus will be more easily spread to others.
Multiple Sexual Partners
If you partake in a threesome without using protection then you effectively double your risk at coming into contact with and potentially contracting an STI.
Sex toys can also spread infections. Hepatitis in particular can live outside of the body for several weeks and so thorough and regular cleaning of sex toys should take place when used. If sex toys are passed between partners or used by multiple people they will require cleaning or a fresh condom before each new use.
The risk of contracting STIs can be greatly reduced by adopting safe sex practices. Male and female condoms as well as dental dams should be used during all sexual contact.
Regular STI testing can ensure that you receive treatment if an infection is present. Also having a conversation with your potential sexual partner to check that they too have been recently tested for STIs can help minimise your risk.