How Condoms Prevent HIVs

How does a condom prevent AIDS? Examined under a microscope, the surface of a latex condom has no pores. Even when stretched, it remains pore-free. Because of this, even the tiniest of microorganisms such as the HIV (which is between 0.09 and 0.13 microns) cannot pass through it. Laboratory experiments have shown that the latex condom can block germs less than one-fiftieth the size of a sperm cell (which is about 3 microns). That makes these condoms a reliable barrier against sexually-transmitted diseases or STDs.

"Such an intact barrier shields the wearer's secretions or lesions. For the partner, the condom prevents contact with potentially infectious semen and any lesions on the wearer's penis," according to the editors of Consumer Reports.

"So compelling is the evidence that since 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has let manufacturers list a roster of diseases that condoms, when used properly, can help prevent: syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, genital herpes and AIDS," Consumer Reports added.

This protection increases when latex condoms are used with a vaginal spermicide. Combined with nonoxynol-9, the active ingredient in most over-the-counter spermicides, latex condoms prevent pregnancy by about 95 percent and protect couples from STDs, including hepatitis B. In some, the use of a spermicide can cause allergy or infection. When this happens, switch to a product with a lower concentration of nonoxynol-9. There's no need to worry for this low amount is also effective against STDs.

"Even concentrations well under one percent have inactivated the AIDS virus in the lab. So nonoxynol-9 spermicides, used with a condom, can provide something of an extra safety net, should the condom break," Consumer Reports said.

In contrast, skin condoms do not offer the same protection. Unlike latex condoms, they are made in such a way that an occasional pore may be present on their surface, allowing the AIDS or hepatitis B virus to slip through. For this reason, their role in disease prevention is questionable.

"Skin condoms work well as contraceptives. But apparently, because of the skin's possible porosity, the FDA doesn't allow their packages to carry the disease prevention labeling that latex condoms may carry. It remains an open question whether the skins' relative strength outweighs their potential to pass small microbes. In view of this uncertainty, (our) medical consultants advise latex condoms for disease prevention," Consumer Reports said. (Next: Caring for condoms.)

Sharon Bell is an avid health and fitness enthusiast and published author. Many of her insightful articles can be found at the premier online news magazine

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