01/20/2011 08:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Safe Sex: The 411

As a medical practitioner on the frontlines of teen sexuality, I provide both medical care and sexual health education to sexually active teens and their worried parents. Contrary to popular opinion, there simply is no such thing as "safe sex." I aim for teaching people how to have the safest sex possible.

Sexual activity poses risks at any age; unplanned pregnancy, STIs, dating violence and a broken heart are potential hazards for every sexually active person. Teenagers should be able to depend on parents for accurate information about how to avoid these untoward outcomes. But, this means parents need to educate themselves about sex first before they start talking with their kids. Concerned parents will serve themselves and their kids well by doing the following:

1. Learn the facts about sex in the new millennium. Make no assumptions about your child's sexual activity or how they define what sex is. Times have changed and so has the extent of sexual exploration. Human Papiloma Virus/HPV is the most likely STI that your kid will be exposed to and can absolutely be passed between same sex partners as well as heterosexual ones. HPV is now endemic in our culture and while we have a vaccine to prevent it in teen girls, teen boys can be infected and can infect unvaccinated partners. HPV invades cervical, genital and anal tissue. Approximately 80 percent of people that contract the virus clear it without treatment. The other 20 percent can develop venereal warts and/or cervical or anal cancers -- it all depends on which strain(s) of the virus you contract. Condoms help prevent transmission but the virus also spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Detection occurs either through simply seeing the warts on the genitals or anus and/or having a PAP smear. Treatments vary depending upon how the infection manifests; warts can be removed using various methods while treatment of the cervix will depend on how the virus has affected it.

Herpes Simplex Virus/HSV is another viral infection that many people have, but few understand. People who get cold sores on their mouths have oral Herpes/HSV. Genital Herpes results in sores on the genitals, buttocks or anus. When sores are present on the mouth or genitals, the virus is especially contagious. Transmission can occur without an open lesion, but this is much less likely.

Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus/HIV is highly preventable with condom use. This is the STI parents are often most afraid of their kids contracting. Yet it's the STI that well informed, healthy teens are least likely to encounter or contract; especially if they use a condom. HIV infection rates are higher in some populations than in others, but remain dependent on the choice and number of sexual partners, regular condom use and certain sexual practices that are more likely to result in transmission, such as anal intercourse without a condom.

Other STIs like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Syphillus -- all of which are bacterial -- can be cured with specific antibiotics. Sometimes, these infections are present but the infected person has no symptoms. Sexually active teens should seek care at least annually with practitioners who are well-versed in reproductive and sexual medicine. These folks are easy to find at public health clinics and Planned Parenthood.

2. Review the birth control options that are now available. Birth control pills aren't the only method to prevent pregnancy. New hormonal patches, flexible rings worn in the vagina and even new intra-uterine devices/IUDs can be good choices for sexually active teens. All these methods have an efficacy rate of 98-99 percent when used correctly. But, no matter what method a girl chooses, none of us should forget about condoms. They can prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy while encouraging responsible sexual behavior and awareness in both girls and boys. And, when buying condoms, keep in mind that more expensive ones are often more comfortable, fit better and are less likely to break. They also offer greater sensitivity, making them more appealing and therefore more likely to be used consistently. This is one item that's worth spending money on.

3. Don't assume abstinence is best. If you're a concerned parent who thinks they can or should scare their teen out of having sex because of the risks, think again. Remember, interested and active teens are exhibiting behaviors that's normal. The adolescent brain takes its cues about behavior in large part from the endocrine system which has a voice of its own -- a loud, commanding voice that your child simply cannot ignore.

And BTW -- it's not a bad idea to keep condoms in their drawer -- whether you have a son or daughter. This won't give them tacit approval for having sex. What it says instead is: "If you are going to, do so as safely as you can."