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Can condom prevent all STDs?

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

N looked perplexed and anxious when I told her that she had human papilloma virus (HPV) in her cervix confirmed by a tissue biopsy.

"But how could it be?" she asked. “My husband uses the condom all the time. From what I read in the media, the condom is supposed to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Now I am confused.”

Like N, many people are under the impression that condoms can prevent all STDs. This is a misconception. Studies have shown that condoms can only reduce the transmission but cannot completely eliminate the infections.

An authoritative study in the US released in 2001 has shown that even with correct and consistent use of condoms, transmission of HIV can only be prevented in 85% of cases.

The same study also showed that condom was ineffective in the prevention of genital herpes, syphilis, chancroid, and the human papilloma virus (HPV).

“So why should the condom fail?” N asked.

“There are 2 main reasons,” I explained. “Firstly, STDs are transmitted primarily in 2 ways—via bodily fluids, in infections such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia, and by skin to skin contact like HPV, genital herpes and syphilis. In the latter group of diseases, if the infected area is exposed and not covered completely by the condom, infections can occur. Secondly, there may be flaws in the condom. Not all condoms that are passed for sale are perfect. A very small proportion may be defective. Between the time of production and the time of use, the condom could be subjected to various environmental conditions such as heat that can cause its quality to be compromised. The condom can also break during sex or may slip out during or after sex. All these factors contribute to the failure of condom in preventing STDs.”

After listening attentively to my explanation and the reassurance that most HPV infection would be cleared off by her own immune system naturally over time, N left my consultation room with a sigh of relief.

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