Preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is always preferable to treating an infection after the fact—the infection may lie dormant for months and carry long-term health risks.

The only method to prevent STIs that is truly guaranteed is to avoid all sexual contact. However, since this is not a practical solution for most, there are steps one can take to limit one’s risk of exposure.

Ideally, preventive measures should begin before there is any sexual contact. Limiting your number of sexual partners can help limit your exposure to STIs, as can being honest about your sexual history. Partners should be willing to get tested before initiating a sexual relationship. If you have had an STI in the past, you should tell your partner so that you can both make safe, informed decisions.

Be aware of the symptoms of various sexually transmitted infections, but also remain mindful of the fact that some do not display symptoms for some time. If you have any reason to suspect that you or your partner may have contracted an STI, refrain from sexual contact until you have been tested.

Wearing a condom for all forms of sex (vaginal, anal, and oral) is key to preventing the exchange of infected bodily fluids. Condoms can also help to minimize skin to skin contact, thus lessening the danger of contracting an infection through genital warts. It is preferable that male partners wear a condom. Female condoms offer a lesser degree of protection, but are still much more preferable to no protection. If a male partner is unwilling to wear a condom, the female partner should wear one. Whether male or female condoms are used, it is important to follow the usage instructions that are given on the box. An incorrectly worn condom can break or fall off, placing both partners at risk of STIs. Never reuse a condom, and never use a condom whose expiration date has passed.

Although condoms can prevent the exchange of fluids, they can only minimize some skin contact. If genital warts or herpes sores are an issue, other preventive measures should be taken: testing and treatment, HPV vaccination (if recommended by your physician), and abstention from sexual contact during outbreaks.

After sex, correct disposal of the condom can help to lessen further risk of contact with infected fluids, as can washing the genital area. When washing the genitals, simple soap and water is preferable to douching kits, which can alter the vagina’s natural chemistry, and therefore have been shown to increase rather than decrease the risk of infection. It should also be noted that certain spermicides increase the risk of infection by irritating the lining of the vagina.

Sexually transmitted infections do not discriminate by age or gender. Many teens mistakenly believe that they are not at risk, or that they cannot contract an infection through just one instance of sexual contact. They may not recognize the symptoms, and may choose to not tell anyone or seek medical advice if they do discover sores or abnormal discharge. If left untreated, both the carrier and everyone they have sexual contact with are placed at risk. Education about symptoms, risk factors, treatment, and prevention of STIs is vital for everyone, including teens, and can help them to avoid long-term health issues.