Mayo Clinic Health Library

Condoms

Updated: 04-28-2011

Definition

A male condom is a thin sheath placed over the erect penis and left in place during sexual intercourse. Condoms, also called rubbers, are an effective way to protect yourself and your partner from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and to prevent pregnancy. Condoms are simple to use, inexpensive and widely available.

Condoms are usually made of latex, but some are made from polyurethane or lambskin. Latex and polyurethane condoms provide the most protection against STDs (also called sexually transmitted infections). Condoms are available with or without a lubricant and come in a variety of lengths, shapes, widths, thicknesses and colors. Some condoms are textured to increase sensation.

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Why it's done

If you use them correctly every time you have sex, condoms prevent pregnancy and the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. Condoms also reduce the risk of infection from other STDs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Condoms don't have the side effects found in some forms of female contraception, such as birth control pills or shots, or potential complications of an intrauterine device (IUD). They are available without a prescription and are easy to obtain.

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Risks

Condoms are generally safe and effective. However, there are a few things you should consider:

  • Condoms can trigger a latex allergy. Reactions to latex can include rash, hives, runny nose and in severe cases, tightening of the airways and loss of blood pressure. If you or your partner is allergic to latex, a polyurethane or lambskin condom may be an alternative.
  • Condoms aren't foolproof. There's still a risk of getting an STD or becoming pregnant when using a condom, especially if it breaks or comes off during sex.
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How you prepare

Condoms are available without a prescription. They're sold in many stores and from vending machines in some restrooms. Condoms may be less expensive or may be free at family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood. School nurses and university health centers often have condoms available for free.

Finding a type of condom that works well for you can take a little trial and error. Fit is important. If it's too tight, a condom is more likely to break. If it's too loose, it may slip off. Some men find that condoms decrease sensation or are uncomfortable to wear. You may find that a certain type of condom is more comfortable for you or provides greater sensation during sex.

Some condoms are lubricated with nonoxynol-9, a spermicide meant to help prevent pregnancy. However, condoms without spermicide appear to be a better option for several reasons:

  • Spermicidal condoms don't appear to be any more effective than other lubricated condoms at preventing pregnancy.
  • Nonoxynol-9 may irritate or damage skin cells in the vagina or rectum. This could potentially increase the risk of getting an STD.
  • Spermicide doesn't help protect you or your partner against HIV/AIDS or other STDs.
  • Spermicidal condoms cost more than other types of condoms and have a shorter shelf life.

Condom safety tips

  • Store condoms in a cool, dry place. Exposure to air, heat and light increases the chance that a condom will break. Don't keep condoms in a billfold, back pocket or glove compartment for an extended period of time. Friction, perspiration and changes in temperature can cause condoms to break down and become less reliable.
  • Check the expiration date. Don't use a condom past its expiration date.
  • Check condoms for damage. Look for brittleness, small tears or pinprick holes before using one.
  • Be sure to use only water-based lubricants. Examples include Astroglide and K-Y jelly. If you use latex condoms, don't use oil-based lubricants such as petroleum jelly, baby oil, cooking oil or lotion. They can weaken a latex condom and may cause it to break.
  • Never reuse a condom. This increases the risk of pregnancy and passing on STDs.
  • Use only a latex or polyurethane condom to prevent STDs. Lambskin condoms don't protect against STDs as well as latex or polyurethane condoms do. Read the label on the package to see what the condom is made of and whether it's labeled for STD prevention.
  • Use a condom during any sexual activity. This will help protect you from STDs whether you have vaginal, oral or anal sexual contact.
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What you can expect

It's important to use condoms carefully, correctly and consistently. Here's how to correctly use a condom:

  • Put on a condom before any sexual contact. Keep in mind, STDs can be passed on and pregnancy can occur before male sexual climax (ejaculation).
  • Open the package carefully. Don't use your teeth or fingernails.
  • Apply lubricant inside and outside of the condom. This may not be needed if you use a condom that's pre-lubricated.
  • Pull your foreskin back. This is necessary if you're not circumcised.
  • Place the tip of the rolled-up condom over your penis. The penis should be erect before you put on the condom. The rolled rim should be on the outside. If you start to put on the condom and realize that the rolled side is on the inside, throw it away and use another condom.
  • Gently press the tip of the condom to remove air. This isn't necessary if the condom has a reservoir tip.
  • Roll the condom down. Make sure it covers the entire penis.
  • Remove any air bubbles. An air bubble could cause the condom to tear or come off.
  • After sex, grasp the base of the condom before you remove it. This will prevent the condom from coming off before you pull away from your partner.
  • Dispose of the condom in the trash. Don't flush condoms down the toilet.
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Results

Condoms are an effective form of birth control. However, more than 1 out of 50 couples who use condoms correctly will get pregnant in a year. Chances of pregnancy increase if you don't always wear a condom during intercourse, or you use condoms incorrectly.

Condoms are effective at preventing the transmission of most STDs, although there's still some risk. When used correctly, a condom creates a barrier that limits your exposure — and your partner's exposure — to semen or other body fluids that can carry STDs.

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