Birth Control Overview

There are more birth control options than ever before, including various types of hormonal pills, condoms, IUDs, and more. Find out which one is right for you.

There are more birth control options than ever before, including various types of hormonal pills, condoms, IUDs, and more. Find out which one is right for you.

What Is Birth Control?

Any method, device, or drug that helps prevent pregnancy is considered "birth control," regardless of how well it works. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 65% of women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 49 use some kind of contraception.

We've come a long way since women of ancient Greece placed goat bladders in their vaginas to keep from getting pregnant. Whether you want a pill you take every day, a shot in your arm, or a device that's placed in your uterus (which could last more than a decade), there's a method of birth control that will work for you. Some, like condoms, you can buy off a store shelf. Others require a prescription or a visit with a healthcare professional.

Types of Birth Control

Your birth control choices include:

Barrier methods (i.e. male and female condoms) keep sperm from reaching your vagina.

IUDs (Intrauterine devices) are small T-shaped devices. When one is placed inside your uterus, it stops sperm from fertilizing your egg.

Hormonal methods (like the Pill, implant, shot, ring, patch, and some IUDs) keep your ovaries from releasing an egg each month.

Sterilization (tubal ligation for women or vasectomy for men) is a permanent surgical method to prevent pregnancy.

Natural family planning relies on you figuring out the days you're most likely to get pregnant, then not having sex on those days.

Spermicide (in foam, suppositories, or film) blocks sperm from reaching your cervix.

Emergency contraception (as either a pill or IUD) is available if your current birth control fails, like a condom breaks or you forget to take your Pill. It can't reverse a pregnancy that's already started, but it does reduce the chances that sperm fertilizes an egg.

Birth Control Side Effects

Depending on the kind of birth control you use, you may have some side effects.

Birth control pills can cause spotting, sore breasts, nausea, and headaches. Some types that contain more than one hormone can also cause severe, but very rare, side effects like blood clots, stroke, liver tumors, and heart attacks.

IUDs can give you cramps or backaches at first, as well as irregular periods.

Vaginal rings may cause increased discharge or a vaginal infection, a lowered sex drive, or depression.

Birth control shots can upset your stomach, and cause headaches, weight gain, or depression.

Birth control patches can irritate your skin and cause breakthrough bleeding. If you're using one with combined hormones, it can also raise your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), heart attack, and stroke.

Many of these side effects often go away on their own, and not everyone has side effects.

Other Uses for Birth Control

Although the main point of using birth control is to keep from getting pregnant, some types can help you out in other ways too. For instance, hormonal methods, like the Pill, patch, shot, and some IUDs, can also help with:

And don't write off "old-school" latex condoms — they're the only type of birth control that offers protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV. When used correctly, condoms can also lower your risk of genital herpes, syphilis, HPV, and HPV-related diseases like cervical cancer.

Choosing a Birth Control Method

There's a lot to consider when trying to figure out which kind of birth control is best for you. You'll need to think about (and discuss with your healthcare professional):

  • How soon you might want to start trying to have a baby.
  • Any health issues you currently have.
  • How often you have sex.
  • The number of partners you have.
  • If you want your birth control to also protect against STIs and HIV.
  • How well you want your birth control to work.
  • Which side effects you're okay dealing with.
  • How well each method fits with your lifestyle.

You'll also need to factor in your budget, since as of 2020, employers no longer have to cover birth control in health insurance plans. To give you an idea of costs, some types of vaginal rings can cost as much as $2,000 each year (if you pay out of pocket), and a patch can cost around $130 per week.

How To Use Birth Control

While you can buy a box of condoms or some types of emergency contraception over the counter, the majority of other birth control methods require planning ahead.

Birth control pill: Once you get a prescription, you'll take a Pill every day, ideally at the same time, for 21 days. You'll get your period during the fourth week.

Birth control shot: You'll need it 4 times each year. While it's often given in a medical setting, sometimes you're allowed to bring the shot home and give it to yourself.

Birth control patch: Available by prescription, you'll wear a patch on your upper body, lower abdomen, upper outer arm, or butt. You'll change it once a week for 3 weeks, take a week-long break, then apply a new patch.

Vaginal ring: Once your doctor provides the ring, you'll put it into your vagina and leave it for 3 weeks. You'll take it out for 7 days, then put in a new one.

IUD: This tiny device is inserted by your healthcare professional during a quick office procedure. A copper IUD is effective immediately — and will stay in place for up to 12 years. A hormonal IUD starts working in 7 days and will be effective for 3 to 7 years.

Pregnancy Prevention

Birth control isn't foolproof. For it to work as well as it's supposed to, you'll need to know how to use it correctly. Your healthcare professional will provide advice and guidance, but here's how to avoid some of the most common mistakes.

Condoms: If you've had one sitting in your wallet or purse for more than a month, toss it. The warmth will damage it and make it less effective.

Birth control pill: Know when you last had your period. If you start the Pill within 5 days of your period starting, you'll have instant protection against pregnancy. If not, it will take a week to start working.

IUD: Don't bathe, have sex, or wear tampons for 24 hours after it is first inserted. At some point, you may also feel a very small, slippery string at the top of your vagina. Don't tug or pull it — this is how your doctor will remove your IUD when it's time.

Vaginal ring: If you accidentally leave it in for more than 4 weeks, take it out right away and use condoms for the next 7 days. If you've had unprotected sex within the last 5 days, talk with your healthcare professional — you may want to use emergency contraception.

Birth control patch: If your patch comes even partially loose, don't use tape or gauze to hold it in place. Replace it with a new one right away. If it's loose for more than 24 hours, you'll need to use a backup form of birth control for 1 week.

A Quick Review

With so many birth control options available, it's worth taking time to consider which type or types are best for your lifestyle, health needs and personal preferences. You can also talk with a healthcare professional for additional guidance if needed.

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