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How do Condoms Work?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Safer sex advocates as well as family planning associations strongly encourage sexually active people to use condoms, a method of barrier protection which is 98% effective at preventing pregnancy, and also provides protection from many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Like other methods of sexual protection, condoms work best when they are used properly and stored in conditions which will maintain their integrity. Condoms can also be combined with another method, such as hormonal birth control, to ensure double protection from pregnancy and STDs simultaneously. In addition, sexually active individuals should be tested regularly for AIDS and other STDs to ensure that they are not putting partners at risk.

A condom is a sheath made from latex, polyurethane, or lamb intestines which is designed to cover the penis, preventing the exchange of bodily fluids between two sexual partners. Some companies also manufacture insertable female condoms that can be worn by female sexual partners. Because a condom creates a barrier between the sexual partners, STDs carried in body fluids cannot be passed between them, and in the case of heterosexual partners, semen cannot impregnate the female partner. Many condoms also include spermicide, to ensure that any semen which may escape will perish before it reaches an egg.

To use a condom properly, it must be put on in the beginning stages of sexual intercourse, because pre-ejaculate can still infect a partner or cause pregnancy. The condom should be rolled on with the right side out, and uncircumcised males should pull back their foreskins before putting on a condom. Roll the condom all the way down the shaft of the penis, adding lubricant to the outside if necessary. Some men say that putting a small drop of lubricant inside the condom before putting it on also increases sensitivity: in either case, make sure to use a water based, latex friendly lubricant. After ejaculation, the condom should be disposed of properly; never flush condoms down the toilet.

In addition to using condoms correctly for maximum efficiency, it is also important to never use expired condoms. Check the expiration date on your condoms, and keep them in a cool dry place to prevent heat damage. If condoms have been exposed to heat or the packages look abused, throw them out rather than taking a risk. Should a condom fail during sexual activity, both partners may want to consider getting STI testing. Heterosexual partners who are not using a backup method of birth control should obtain emergency contraception if they want to avoid pregnancy.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By icecream17 — On Apr 19, 2011

@Bhutan - I agree with you because most teenagers are not equipped to deal with an unwanted pregnancy or some sexually transmitted disease. I heard on the news the other day that there are even giving away free condoms in New York City.

I wonder if there is an age requirement for receiving these condoms. What if a minor sought to get one? Would they pass them out like that to anybody?

If anyone knows, I would love to find out because I think that this can be a grey area between protecting the teen from an unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and the parent’s rights to teach their own children about sexual education with respect to their own value system.

By Bhutan — On Apr 17, 2011

@SurfNTurf -I understand that condoms reduce the risk of STD’s but what happens if the condom breaks and the person is infected? I say this because I know that some birth control is better than nothing, but sometimes young kids that are not even adults are given condoms in order to prevent pregnancy but they are really too young to understand the complete ramifications of having sex.

I think that there should be more education regarding the consequences of sexual activity because unless you are able to deal with the adult consequences that come from a sexual relationship you are really making life changing decisons before you are old enough to know how it will alter your life later on.

I think that abstinence should also be taught as an alternative to receiving condoms because unlike any other birth control this one has a 100% success rate in protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

I know that there will be kids that won’t listen, but the same is true with the war on drugs and we still try to teach them to avoid drugs so it is worth a shot.

By surfNturf — On Apr 16, 2011

@Mutsy - I agree with you that the IUD is a good alternative, but from what I have read it is usually recommended for women that have already had children, so not all women might be able to use this type of birth control.

I had a friend who used an IUD that was good for five years and although she liked not having to worry about birth control, it did make her feel irritable and bloated.

She also said that she gained about fifteen pounds as well. I don’t know if the weight gain is directly related to the IUD, but she seems to think so.

Also, she told me that when she had it removed, it made her nauseous and she threw up. She felt better after a few days, but her experience was not good. She went back to the pill instead.

By mutsy — On Apr 13, 2011

I do think that using male condoms properly can significantly reduce the risk of pregnancy but I am always afraid of what would happen if the condom broke.

I think that a back up method like an IUD might be a good idea. An IUD is usually good for a period of five to ten years and only has to be inserted once.

If you are in a committed relationship than you may not even need any condoms. The cost for inserting the IUD is anywhere from $750 to $900 but if you compare that to the cost of the birth control bill it will save you money over the years. I used to work at a doctor’s office which is why I know.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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