Can Washing Prevent STDs?

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 21, 2002 -- How much do teenagers and young adults know about safe sex? Not much. In fact, many people are still in the dark when it comes to preventing sexually transmitted diseases, according to the latest research. But on the bright side, that same research shows that counseling can shed some light on the truth while dispelling dangerous old myths.

Every year, more than 15 million new cases of STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are reported. A study in the October 2000 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine may explain why.

In the study, 3,500 people who had been diagnosed with an STD were followed for a year. The patients, average age 25, were initially asked some questions about what they thought were proper behaviors to avoid STDs. The answers were surprising.

  • Nearly half of the group believed douching protected against STDs.
  • Almost 40% thought urinating after sex fought off STDs.
  • One in five believed birth control pills protected against STDs.
  • Sixteen percent thought washing their genitals after sex was effective protection.

None of these behaviors are effective methods for preventing STDs, and in fact, there's evidence that irritation caused by douching may actually increase STD infection risk. Abstaining from sex and the proper use of condoms are the best ways to reduce STD risk.

After the initial interview, the patients were then reinterviewed and counseled over the course of the following year. Some held on to their misconceptions about prevention, mostly those over the age of 24 with a high school education or less. But the counseling was effective for many others in the group.

In fact, the message about safe sex is much clearer to STD patients after a brief counseling session, according to study author Richard Crosby, PhD, a research fellow at the CDC in Atlanta. "After a one-on-one discussion that was based on a fact sheet, about half of those who were counseled didn't have any misconceptions at a follow-up visit three months later," he tells WebMD.

This practical approach to STD prevention is what high school students and their parents say is lacking in sex education classes, according to a national survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In fact, they indicated that learning how to use condoms and talking with partners about STDs are areas in need of focus. But because one-on-one interaction is limited in the classroom, experts say physicians are another source of information for teenagers.

"Even if your child is feeling fine, it's a good idea to see the doctor during puberty," says Barbara Snyder, MD, chief of adolescent medicine and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Brunswick, N.J. "That way they can get their questions answered by a professional, rather than by their peers. But with all the media messages they're exposed to, you probably shouldn't wait until they're 17," she cautions.

As a mother herself, Snyder tells WebMD that parents should begin a dialogue with their kids as early as age 10. To get started, here's what she suggests:

  • Ask your doctor for guidance and age-appropriate handouts.
  • Check Internet sites for additional information.
  • Focus on body awareness and developing self-respect.
  • Avoid fear messages, which aren't yet relevant to them.

But it's OK to tell children what you think is right, according to Marcia Rubin, PhD, MPH, the director of research and sponsored programs for the American School Health Association. "Kids learn the basics at school, but they look to their parents in setting boundaries for their behavior. That's why an ongoing dialogue with mom and dad has been shown to delay sexual activity," she explains.

The idea is to make a connection and deepen your bond. So to keep kids coming back for more, here's what Rubin recommends:

  • Tell them why you believe what you believe.
  • Learn the facts and share them calmly.
  • Offer kids the benefit of your mistakes.
  • Try not to tell your children what to do.
  • Talk with them, not at them.