Myths about STIs and condoms

Our Sexual Health Week survey (PDF) showed that many people have gaps in their knowledge when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and condom use.

It's a myth that STIs always have signs and symptoms so it's important to get testedWith sex and relationships education (SRE) still not statutory in all schools, and many of us still feeling embarrassed and awkward to talk about our sexual health, it's easy for myths and misconceptions to stubbornly remain.

Here’s the truth behind some of the more common myths we’ve heard about STIs.

MYTH: I can’t get an STI from oral sex

Although the risk of getting an STI through oral sex is generally less than from vaginal or anal sex, there is still a risk. The infections most commonly passed on through oral sex are herpes simplex, gonorrhoea and syphilis.

In our survey, more than half didn't know you could get an STI from oral sex and only one in 10 had learned about the risk of STIs and oral sex when they were at school.

The best way to help protect yourself during oral sex is to use a male or female condom, or a dam to cover your genital area or anus.

FPA Pleasure has advice on how to use a dam.

MYTH: Getting an STI test is painful and embarrassing

For both men and women, tests for many STIs are as quick and easy as giving a urine sample. Some tests might also involve having blood taken, a visual examination to look for signs of infection, or using a swab (like a smaller, soft and rounded cotton bud) on the genital area. If a swab is needed, some services will offer you the option of using it yourself.

If you use an online service to order a home testing kit, you don't even need to go to a clinic or general practice. Make sure the service you use will help you get support as well as treatment if you need it.

And men, if you’ve heard scare stories about umbrella-shaped implements being inserted into your penis you can rest easy – it’s a myth.

As for the embarrassment, remember that health professionals carry out sexual health check-ups every day – and they don’t look at an STI test as a reflection on your behaviour, but as a responsible health choice.

MYTH: I can’t afford STI tests and treatments

All STI tests and treatment are completely free through the NHS at genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinics. You can find your nearest service by using FPA’s Find a clinic tool. Many GPs offer free STI testing as well, though you may have to pay a prescription charge for any treatment.

If you live in England, the National Chlamydia Screening Programme offers testing for young people under 25 at various locations around the country and depending where you live, you may also be able to get a free home testing kit.

MYTH: Only gay men and drug users get HIV

HIV is a virus which can be transmitted in various ways, including through sex. It doesn’t matter what sexual orientation or gender you are, or whether you have had lots of sexual partners; anyone who is sexually active can be at risk of HIV.

In our survey the majority of people didn't know that more than 18,000 people in the UK have HIV but don't know they have it.

Men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV, but of the estimated 103,700 people living with HIV in the UK, around one-third are women, and around half of cases were transmitted through heterosexual sex.

MYTH: Oral contraception can protect against STIs

Oral contraception (the pill) is only effective in preventing pregnancy. The pill can’t stop STIs being passed on. 

Male and female condoms are the only methods of contraception that will help protect you from getting and passing on STIs when you have oral, vaginal or anal sex. You can also use a dam to protect yourself if you have oral sex.

MYTH: Only people with a lot of sexual partners get STIs

One in 10 people in our survey thought it was true that people who get STIs have the most sexual partners. The truth is STIs don’t care about your sexual history. They can be passed on through unprotected (without a condom) vaginal, anal or oral sex, by genital contact and through sharing sex toys – whether you’ve had sex once or 100 times.

And despite what a lot of people think, STIs don’t only affect young people – there has been a continued increase of some infections among older age groups.

MYTH: STIs will go away on their own

It’s very unlikely that an STI will go away by itself and if you delay seeking treatment you risk the infection causing long-term problems.

There is also a risk of passing on the infections to partners, even if you don’t have any signs or symptoms at the time.

Find your nearest testing and treatment service.

Information on sexually transmitted infections.