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PROTECT YOURSELF: April Is Sexually Transmitted Disease

Condoms Can Dramatically Cut the Risk of Infection


Most men think a lot about sex, but not much about sexually transmitted diseases. But men who overlook STDs are ignoring a very real threat to their health.

Like women, men have a 1 in 4 chance of contracting an STD in their lifetime and can develop serious complications from today's most common STDs. Untreated chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, for example, can spread to the testicles, causing painful swelling and, possibly, sterility.

Genital herpes, which affects an estimated one in five Americans older than 12, can cause outbreaks of painful sores that may recur for years. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause recurring warts on the skin in the genital area or even inside the penis and can lead to penile and anal cancers in rare cases.

A man who passes an STD to a female partner can increase her risk of infertility, pregnancy complications or cervical cancer.

Because of anatomical differences, men are more likely than women to notice symptoms from STDs. Yet many men with STDs have no symptoms at all and are unaware of their infection. They also often mistakenly believe that they can tell by looking if a sexual partner is free of STDs, even though STDs frequently cause no noticeable symptoms in women either. STDs are often transmitted even when no signs or symptoms are present. For example, at least 50% of people infected with genital herpes never have symptoms or have symptoms so mild they go unnoticed. However, these individuals can still pass the infection to their sexual partners.

Men can dramatically reduce their STD risk by using a condom. Numerous scientific studies have shown that condoms are highly effective in protecting against STDs, including HIV. A two-year study of couples in which one partner was HlV-positive and the other negative found that in those couples who consistently used condoms, none of the uninfected partners became infected.

Many men have gotten the message: Condom use among younger men is on the increase. Men who don't use condoms typically complain that condoms reduce sensation, don't fit properly or break. The wide array of condoms now available should address some of these complaints. Latex condoms come in different colors, shapes and sizes to adjust the snugness of fit. Using extra thin condoms or a small amount of lubricant inside the tip as well as outside the condom increases sensation for some men. Condoms made of polyurethane are also now available, which some people may prefer to latex. Some men also prefer using the female condom with their partner because it does not go directly on the penis and feels less restrictive to them.

Condoms rarely break, but when they do, it's usually because the condom was old, was exposed to heat or was used with the wrong lubricant. Men can reduce the chance of condom breakage by learning how to use condoms properly. Correct use includes checking the condom's expiration date, storing condoms away from heat and sunlight, and making sure to use only water-based lubricants, such as K-Y Jelly.

Men should also be aware that condoms protect only the area they cover. Because some STDs, particularly herpes and HPV, can be transmitted to the skin surrounding the genitals--outside the area that condoms cover--condoms may be somewhat less effective in protecting against these diseases.

Men can lower their risk of complications from STDs by getting tested regularly. The good news is that new tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea require only a urine sample and are now available in some clinics, making STD screening completely painless. In general, men who are sexually active should seek routine exams at least once a year, though they should get tested more often if they have new or multiple partners.

Men who do have symptoms, such as a discharge or drip from the penis, burning during urination, or redness, sores or bumps in the genital area, should see a doctor immediately. If treated for an STD, a man should make sure that his sexual partners are also treated, or he is likely to be reinfected by them. By taking the initiative in their health care and practicing safer sex, men can protect their health and the health of their partners.

* Dr. Gary A. Richwald is director of the Los Angeles County STD Program. Jane Baeumler is director of communications for the program.

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