But unsafe sex can cause a lot of problems, including STIs and unwanted pregnancies. So, what are the risks, and what sort of contraception should you be using?
Sexually Transmitted Infections
STIs are spread through intimate sexual contact – including oral, anal, and vaginal sex. It is recommended to use a condom in all of these situations.
Adults in their 20s may be the most at risk for STIs. This age group was diagnosed with the most STIs by far – 70% of all STIs reported were under age 30, according to the Irish Study for Sexual Health and Relationships (ISSHR).
- 84% of chlamydia cases were reported in those under the age of 30.
- Chlamydia and other STIs can be entirely symptomless.
- STIs can cause serious and permanent health problems, including infertility, cancer and, in the worst cases, death.
Chlamydia in particular is on the rise in Ireland and may be asymptomatic in up to 70% of women and 50% of men who are infected. You could have no idea you have it and no idea you’re spreading it. This is why it’s so important to get STI tested regularly. Our Clinical Director Dr Sylvester Mooney recommends getting STI tested every 6 months if you have been sexually active with more than one partner.
Using contraception is essential to preventing the spread of STIs and avoiding pregnancy.
Although there are several other methods of contraception, we’ll review the two most commonly used methods below: the hormonal contraceptive pill and the condom.
How does the contraceptive pill work?
There are two primary types of hormonal contraceptive pills:
- Combined hormonal contraception
- Progestogen-only hormonal contraception
Combined hormonal contraception, which includes progestogen and estrogen, puts your ovaries to sleep so that no eggs are produced. It also thickens the cervical mucus and thins the endometrial lining, making the risk of pregnancy while you use it very low. This can come in the form of pills taken daily for three weeks with a week-long break, or a weekly patch which transmits the same hormones through the skin.
Progestogen-only hormonal contraception works slightly differently. It thickens the mucus at the neck of the womb, thereby blocking the entry of sperm. Progestogen-only pills don’t involve a risk of blood clots, meaning they are safe for those who are at a higher risk (smokers, over 35 years old, very overweight, etc.). However, they do need to be taken more strictly at the same time everyday for full protection.
Advantages to the pill or patch:
- By taking control of your fertility, you minimise the risk of pregnancy should you wish to have sexual activity.
- The pill often reduces cramps and menstrual bleeding, in general making periods shorter, lighter and less painful.
- When used correctly, the pill is 99% effective at preventing pregnancy. In practical terms, the efficacy rate of the pill is around 92%, which is why any woman relying on the pill for contraception is always advised to use condoms as a backup. (Condom use minimises the risk of STIs)
- The pill reduces the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer by up to 50%, and this protective effect lasts for a further 15 years after stopping the pill.
Finally remember that:
- You can stay on the pill for as long as you want.
- It is not necessary to “take a break” from the pill. It is a bad idea, in fact.
- Fertility is not affected by prolonged continuous use of the pill.
- The pill does not protect against STIs. If you have sex without a condom on the pill, it is recommended you get an STI test.
How effective are condoms? Condoms of some sort have been used for centuries to prevent the spread of venereal diseases and to prevent pregnancy. When used correctly and carefully, this remains one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of modern-day STIs and can help to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
- Condoms and other barrier methods when used carefully and correctly are the only form of birth control that also prevents the spread of STIs.
- Condoms are 99% effective when used carefully and correctly.
- For full protection against STIs, it is recommended that condoms are used during vaginal, anal and oral sex.
- Among those aged 18-24 who used contraception during their last sexual activity, 82% of men and 74% of women reported using condoms.
GPs at Webdoctor note that the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and the spread of STIs is to use both the contraceptive pill and a condom.
How can I protect myself now?
Always practice safe sex. Both STIs and unwanted pregnancies cause long-lasting effects and result in far greater costs than purchasing contraception.
A prescription for the contraceptive pill can be requested by women through their local GP or through an online service like Webdoctor (click here to request a prescription for the contraceptive pill for only €25).
Condoms can be purchased at most supermarkets, pharmacies and newsagents. Both men and women should always carry condoms in case they choose to have sex.
Test yourself regularly for STIs. This way, you can catch the disease early and treat it right away, as well as prevent it from spreading to a partner.
If you have any pain or any physical manifestations (e.g. sores, discharge or weeping), please go and see your GP in person for a physical examination.
Don’t be Shy: Speak to a GP
It may feel intimidating to go to a GP about your sexual health, but these are experts with a wealth of knowledge, and they’re there to help if there is anything you need to discuss.
Make an appointment with your GP – your university may have one on campus, or you could visit your local GP. Additionally, you can schedule an online video consultation to speak with a Webdoctor GP.
- The Irish Study for Sexual Health and Relationships. – Crisis Pregnancy Agency and the Department of Health and Children, October 2006.
- Johnny’s got you covered. – Crisis Pregnancy Programme, 2017.