Hesperian Health Guides

How to Protect Yourself from STIs, Including HIV

In this chapter:

a woman sitting on a bed holding a condom while a man undresses

“If they don’t want to use a condom, I ask them if they ever listen to the news, if they have ever heard of AIDS. I tell them I’m not willing to take the chance.” —Jolanda

Sex workers and others who trade sex for money or other necessities need to be able to protect themselves from STIs and HIV. Here are some ideas:

Protecting yourself and others from STIs means having safer sex with your clients, and also with your own partners.

  • Use condoms made of latex, polyurethane, or polyisoprene every time you have sex. Make sure you always have condoms when you work. Remember, you cannot tell by looking if someone has any STIs, including HIV.
  • If a client will not use a condom, sexual touch, fantasy (sex stories), and oral sex are safer than unprotected sex in your vagina or anus.
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internal (female) condom
  • If you are unable to use a condom, using a diaphragm will give some protection, though less than a condom. Better than using a diaphragm, an internal condom is a more effective way to prevent prevent STIs, including HIV, and also pregnancy. It does not depend on your client, and can be put in the vagina several hours before sex.
IMPORTANT! Do not use chemicals like bleach or detergent to wash out your vagina. They can cause serious injury!

For more information see “Safer Sex”, “Family Planning”, and “Sexually Transmitted Infections and Other Infections of the Genitals”.

Treatment for STIs when protection fails

Prevent STIs by practicing safer sex. But sometimes these methods fail. Condoms can break or clients can refuse to use them.

STIs that are not treated quickly can lead to serious illness and even death.

Get early treatment

a woman walking to the door of a building
Health Center

If you think you have been exposed to an STI, early treatment can prevent the infection from getting worse. STIs that are not treated quickly can lead to serious illness and even death.

If possible, have regular exams for STIs. If you are having signs of an STI—discharge or bleeding from your vagina, pain or sores on your genitals, or pain in your lower belly—see a health worker trained to treat STIs as soon as possible. Even if you have no signs of infection, go to a health center or clinic at least once a month for treatment if you have unprotected sex often. If you use condoms every time you have sex, you may need to visit a health center less often. Since you probably do not know what STIs you may have been exposed to, try to be tested for as many as possible.

If you test positive for an STI or believe you were exposed to one or more STIs, it is important to be treated quickly and to encourage your partners to be tested and treated as well.

IMPORTANT! When you take antibiotics to treat STIs, be sure to take the recommended dose for the full amount of time. If you take a smaller amount or take it for a shorter period of time, your signs may go away, but the infection will continue to develop in your body. If you need to be treated again for the same infection later, it will be harder to cure. This is called “drug resistance.” Many medicines that once worked for STIs are no longer effective because of drug resistance.

Testing for HIV

See more information about HIV testing. Check with your local health center to see if they have a National AIDS Control Program. They may have HIV testing and treatment programs for sex workers.

This page was updated:22 Jan 2024