The Austin Chronicle

About AIDS

By Sandy Bartlett, August 30, 2002, Columns

Spermicides Don't Help Prevent HIV/STDs

"Using a spermicide, such as nonoxynol-9, is a good way to help reduce the chance of infection with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases." WRONG! And yet, this is one of the most frequent misconceptions that pops up, perhaps with good reason.

In the urgency of the early AIDS epidemic, N-9's use was actually promoted as valid -- with the caveat that what worked in the test tube (in vitro) was assumed to work in the body (in vivo). Turns out, that isn't the case. What's worse, more recent real-life studies show that tissue irritation in reaction to spermicidal contraceptives like N-9 may actually increase the risk of infection with HIV/STDs.

ASA stopped recommending N-9 in 1992; it was ineffective. Credible health information resources haven't promoted N-9 for years -- but have not succeeded in making the public aware of that. Lately, mounting evidence of potential harm has forced the Centers for Disease Control to take a more visible stand with recently issued guidelines that bluntly say, "Don't." Unfortunately, there hasn't been much media effort to actually inform the public.

Spermicides are sometimes found in lubricants, vaginal foams, and lubed condoms. Products which use N-9 will clearly say so. The lubes and foams should not be used, period, for disease prevention. (They still may help prevent pregnancy, if that is the only goal.) The low level of N-9 used on condoms probably isn't harmful, but they have a shorter shelf life, cost more and are associated with urinary tract infections in women. Suggestion: Toss 'em out.

People who choose to be sexually active deserve the most complete information possible, so that their decisions can be fully informed. The latest knowledge about spermicides: They don't help, they may even be harmful.

(For details, see "2002 Guidelines for the Treatment of Sexually Transmitted Diseases" at

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