What Is It?
Contraception refers to a woman's chosen form of birth control, including hormonal, barrier, chemical and natural methods.
Among all the decisions we must make in life, our birth control choice is one of the most personal. In nearly four decades of childbearing years, your need for birth control—and preference for method—will most likely change multiple times based on your life stage. But no matter if you are at the beginning or end of your childbearing years, you can make the most informed decisions by learning about all your contraceptive options and selecting the ones that best fit your current reproductive health needs.
There are many factors to consider as you choose a birth control method, including cost, side effects, and future pregnancy plans. You'll also want to think about safety and effectiveness. As you choose the best method for you, you will have to weigh risks and benefits. No birth control method is perfect. Unfortunately, many women are not adequately protected from an unwanted pregnancy by their choice of birth control method. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, about one-half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.
There are several reasons birth control methods fail, including inappropriate use (for example, not inserting a diaphragm the right way or not using enough spermicide); failure to consistently use the method chosen (for example, forgetting to take your birth control pills); and failure of the contraceptive method itself (a broken condom, for example).
Failure to correctly and consistently use birth control methods is an important reason they fail. Among women who experience unplanned pregnancies each year in the United States, 41 percent use birth control, but (and this is a big "but") these women use birth control inconsistently. Of the women who use birth control consistently and correctly, only 5 percent become pregnant each year. This illustrates the importance of consistent birth control use.
One reason some women fail to use birth control methods effectively is concern about the risks and safety of certain birth control options. Women may use a particular method only occasionally, for example, thinking it's safer to use it now and then rather than all the time. Or they may stop using a certain method because of bothersome side effects.
In addition, age-related changes can lead women to believe they no longer need to use birth control. For example, women nearing menopause may mistakenly think they are no longer fertile because their menstrual cycles are no longer regular. However, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), about 75 percent of pregnancies in women over 40 are unintended. Although menopause does mark the end of a woman's childbearing years, you have not gone through menopause until you've had 12 consecutive months without a period. You can get pregnant in the peri-menopausal window even if your periods aren't regular.
Good news is, American women have more contraceptive options to choose from than ever before. So you should have no trouble finding one that works well for you and fits your lifestyle.
There are some things you should consider before making a contraception choice:
- How much does the contraceptive cost? Do you have to pay for it all at once or can the cost be spread out over a year? Will your health insurance cover it?
- Can you realistically use the method? Are you sure you understand how to use it properly? Will this method embarrass you or your partner? Does it fit with your lifestyle?
- How do you use the method so it works most effectively? Find out how to use the method correctly and what to do if you forget to use it occasionally.
- What are the side effects? You can ask your health care professional about side effects. What should you expect? What should you do about side effects if they occur, and when should you expect them to stop?
- Will this method cause any unacceptable weight gain?
You can probably think of many more questions about birth control. Learn as much as you can about your options to make an informed decision about which method is the best and safest for you. Consider your needs and discuss them with your health care professional during your next visit.
To get you started, here is some basic information about contraceptive options approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as resources you can use for more in-depth research.
For a comparison of how effective each type of contraception is for preventing pregnancy, please see the chart, "Contraceptive Failure Rates" at the end of this article.
The contraceptive options women have to choose from are:
- Birth control pills, also called oral contraceptives
- Hormonal contraceptive patches
- Hormonal contraceptive vaginal rings
- Long-acting hormonal methods, such as shots and implants
- Intrauterine devices (IUDs)
- Barrier methods such as condoms, diaphragms, contraceptive sponges and cervical caps
- Natural family planning (also called fertility awareness or the "rhythm" method)
- Permanent contraception (sterilization)
- Emergency contraception
The Effectiveness of Contraceptives
The statistics below represent the percentage of women who experienced unintended pregnancy during one year of using the contraceptive method indicated, according to the FDA. Rates given for each method are for typical use:
Less than 1%
Less than 1%
Hormone Shot (Depo-Provera)
Combined Pill (Estrogen/Progestin)
Minipill (Progestin only)
Three-month pill (Seasonale, Seasonique)
Ring (Nuva Ring)
Less than 1%
|Intrauterine Devices (IUDs):|
Less than 1%
Less than 1%
Male Latex Condom(*)
Cervical Cap (no previous births)(**)
17-23% (higher rate after childbirth)
12–84% (higher failure rate after childbirth)
|Spermicide: (gel, foam, suppository, film)||28%|
Natural Family Planning (calendar, temperature, cervical mucus)
(depends on if it is done correctly every single time)
*used without spermicide
**used with spermicide
Birth Control Pills (BCPs)
There are three types of birth control pills on the market today: the combination pill, the mini-pill and the emergency contraceptive pill. The combination pill is the most widely prescribed. It contains two hormones: estrogen and progestin. It works by suppressing ovulation each month, thinning the uterine lining and changing the consistency of the mucus in a woman's cervix to make it harder for sperm to move into contact with an egg.
Low dose combination birth control pills contain less than 35 mcg of estrogen, a lower dose (one-fourth or less) than the birth control pills marketed 30 to 50 years ago. Ultra low-dose birth control pills contain 10 mcg. They come in different formulations. Some require taking a constant dose of both medications for 21 days followed by one week of placebo tablets. Others vary the dose of estrogen and/or progestin that a woman gets throughout her cycle (multiphasic) or add additional days (tablets) of estrogen at the end of the 21- or 24-day cycle. Continuous birth control pills: Continuous-use birth control pills contain ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel. Brand names include Lybrel, Alesse, Lessina, Nordette, and others. Continuous birth control pills are monophasic (containing the same levels of estrogen and progestin throughout the entire pill-taking schedule) that comes in a 28- or 21-day pack a woman takes continuously, with no break between pill packets. That means you won't have a period if you take these pills. You may have some spotting or breakthrough bleeding, particularly when you first start using continuous birth control pills. But most women will have no bleeding (or hardly any) by the end of one year.
Seasonale is a 91-day oral contraceptive regimen also designed to reduce the number of months you have a menstrual cycle. Tablets containing progestin and estrogen are taken for 12 weeks (84 days), followed by one week of placebo tablets. Therefore, the number of expected menstrual periods is reduced from once a month to about once every three months, or four times a year. Seasonique is the same as Seasonale except with Seasonale, women take inactive pills during their four yearly periods and with Seasonique, they take a low dose of estrogen during their periods. Lo-Seasonique is similar to Seasonique but with lower doses of hormones.
If and when you decide to get pregnant and stop taking birth control pills, you may get pregnant immediately—there are no long-term effects on your fertility from birth control pills.
Benefits. Birth control pills are now also prescribed by health care professionals because of their long- and short-term health benefits for women. Birth control pills can help:
- Regulate, shorten or eliminate a woman's menstrual cycle
- Decrease severe cramping and heavy bleeding
- Reduce anemia
- Reduce ovarian cancer risk. According to the American Cancer Society, women who have taken birth control pills for five years or more have a significantly lower risk of ovarian cancer compared to women who have never taken the pill.
- May reduce colorectal cancer risk.
- Reduce the development of ovarian cysts
- Decrease benign breast disease
- Provide reliable birth control without affecting future ability to become pregnant
- Reduce the severity and incidence of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)—infection primarily of the fallopian tubes and/or the female reproductive tract
- Protect against ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside the uterus, in the fallopian tubes)
- Reduce the risk of uterine (endometrial) cancer. Studies find that oral contraceptives protect against this disease by providing the progestins needed to oppose the stimulation of the uterine lining caused by estrogen. The risk is lowest in women who have taken the pill for a long time, and it appears to continue for at least 10 years after a woman has stopped taking the pill.
- Minimize perimenopausal symptoms, such as irregular menstrual bleeding
- Reduce acne
- Treat the emotional and physical symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe form of PMS. One combination oral contraceptive—is FDA-approved for use as an oral contraceptive and as a treatment for the emotional and physical symptoms of PMDD. Both Yaz contains the progestin drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol, a form of estrogen.
Risks. Women with certain health conditions may not be able to use birth control pills. These include:
- Heart disease or stroke
- Liver disease
- Blood clots in the deep veins or lung (risk may vary by formulation so check with your provider)
- Breast cancer
- Severe or uncontrolled diabetes. The estrogen in birth control pills may increase glucose levels and decrease the body's insulin response, while the progestin in the pills may encourage overproduction of insulin. Use of birth control pills by diabetic women should be limited to those who do not smoke, are younger than 35 and are otherwise healthy with no evidence of persistent high blood pressure, kidney disease, vision problems or other vascular disease.
- Smokers 35 or older. Women age 35 or older who smoke and take birth control pills have a significantly higher risk of ischemic stroke.
- Certain types of migraine headaches. Women who take birth control pills and have a history of migraines have an increased risk of stroke compared to nonusers with a history of migraine. Your risk is greatest if you have migraines with "aura"—blurred vision, temporary loss of vision or seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines. A 2016 study looked at the relationship between migraine headaches with aura and hormonal birth control pills containing estrogen. Researchers found an increased stroke risk in women with migraine with aura who use combined oral contraceptives. But they also concluded that the absolute risk of stroke was low, even in the presence of these risk factors. So, the decision of whether to use birth control pills in women with migraine with aura should come down an individualized determination of harms versus benefits.
- Severe hypertension. Birth control pill users with a history of high blood pressure face a substantially higher relative risk of ischemic stroke (blood clot in the brain) than nonusers with no such history. Oral contraceptives are associated with a small, but significant increase in ischemic stroke risk in many, but not all, studies. This was a particular concern with early birth control pills that contained higher doses of estrogen, but newer pills containing less estrogen come with a lower risk of stroke than high-dose pills. In otherwise healthy young women (nonsmokers without persistent high blood pressure), the risk is low.
Smoking cigarettes while taking birth control pills dramatically increases risks of heart attack and stroke for women over age 35. Smoking is far more dangerous to a woman's health than taking birth control pills, but the combination of oral contraceptive pill use and smoking has a greater effect on heart attack and stroke risk than the simple addition of the two factors.
Some women worry that birth control pills may increase their risk for cancer, particularly breast cancer. Newer low-estrogen birth control pills do not carry the risk of increased breast cancer that higher-dose estrogen pills did. However, there is still a slightly increased risk for pill users compared with women who have never used a form of hormonal birth control. A December 2017 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found birth control pills and other hormonal birth control methods, such as the birth control patch, ring, and injections, slightly increase risk for breast cancer. However, the study authors emphasize that the increased risk is very small and if you stopped using hormonal birth control years ago, your risk is probably about the same as women who never used it at all.
Bottom line: Discuss the risks and benefits of birth control pills with your health care professional.
There is some evidence that long-term use of birth control pills may increase the risk of cancer of the cervix (the narrow, lower portion of the uterus). There is also some evidence that birth control pills may increase the risk of certain benign (noncancerous) liver tumors.
Side effects and warnings. Nausea, breast tenderness and bleeding are the most common side effects of all birth control pills. Most side effects decrease or disappear after three months of continuous use. Switching to another pill formulation can also relieve side effects.
A serious issue often overlooked by both women and health care professionals is that interactions with other medications can make birth control pills less effective. Medications known to interact with birth control pills are rifampin (an antibiotic) and some anticonvulsants. If you take these drugs regularly but are still interested in using the pill as your birth control method, talk with your health care professional.
Vaginal Contraceptive Ring
One of the newest contraceptives on the market, NuvaRing, is available by prescription only and consists of a soft, flexible, transparent ring that measures about 2 inches in diameter. It contains a combination of estrogen and progestin hormones (ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel). You insert NuvaRing into your vagina like a tampon, where it slowly releases hormones on a continual basis. You need to insert a new ring each month for continuous contraception. The ring stays in place for three weeks, then you remove it for one week, during which time you have your period.
Benefits. You only need to insert NuvaRing once a month, making it a convenient form of birth control. And, like oral contraceptives, NuvaRing is highly effective if you follow label directions. For every 100 women using NuvaRing correctly for an entire year, only one will become pregnant.
Side effects and warnings. Side effects of the NuvaRing may include vaginal discharge, vaginitis and irritation. Like oral contraceptives, NuvaRing may increase the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. Women who use NuvaRing are strongly advised not to smoke, as it may increase the risk of heart-related side effects.
The contraceptive birth control patch (Xulane) is a transdermal (through the skin) patch approved by the FDA in 2014 that contains ethinyl estradiol and the progesterone norelgestromin. The one-and-three-quarter-inch patch is applied to the skin (abdomen, buttocks or upper torso, but not breasts) where it slowly releases hormones for a week. You must replace the patch with a new one once a week. After three weeks (and three new patches), you have one week that is patch-free, during which you get your period.
Benefits. The patch is 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when used correctly. It also removes the problem of having to remember to take a pill every day or insert a device before intercourse.
Side effects and warnings. In clinical trials, the patch was less effective in women weighing more than 198 pounds. Also, some women experienced breast symptoms, headache, a reaction at the application site, nausea and emotional changes. Other risks are similar to those from using birth control pills, including an increased risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. Women who use the Xulane are strongly advised not to smoke, as it may increase the risk of heart-related side effects.
The Xulane label carries an FDA-required warning that the birth control patch delivers a higher dose of estrogen than the birth control pill and therefore may increase the risk of blood clots and other serious side effects. Women taking or considering the birth control patch should talk to their health care professional about these risks.
A second birth control pill option is referred to as the "mini-pill." You take the mini-pill, which contains progestin only, daily. These pills work by preventing ovulation and reducing and thickening cervical mucus to prevent sperm from reaching the egg. They also keep the uterine lining from thickening, which prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. However, with progestin-only birth control pills, ovulation isn't consistently suppressed, so the actions on cervical mucus and the endometrium are the important factors. They may not be as effective as combined birth control pills. You must take progestin-only pills at exactly the same time, every day.
However, the progestin-only pill is an option for women who want to use oral contraception but can't take estrogen. If you are breastfeeding or experience uncomfortable side effects from estrogen, such as headaches, this could be the best option for you.
It's also important to note that mini-pills aren't as effective at preventing ectopic pregnancy as combination pills. The main side effect from mini-pills is menstrual irregularity; you may not have any bleeding for months, or you may have some spotting between periods. As with combined birth control pills, the mini-pill does not protect you from sexually transmitted diseases, so condoms are necessary if you or your partner is at risk.
Emergency contraception is meant to be used after unprotected intercourse. Emergency contraceptive pills contain the same hormones as birth control pills, but you take them differently. In fact, you can use some birth control pills as emergency contraception with a health care professional's guidance.
Commonly called "the morning after pill," there are several FDA-approved emergency contraception pills in the United States: Plan B, Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, and generic levonorgestrel tablets, all of which contain the progestin levonorgestrel, and ulipristal acetate tablets, sold under the brand name "ella" and “ellaOne."
ella can prevent pregnancy when taken orally within five days (120 hours) after unprotected sex. It is a progesterone agonist/antagonist whose likely main effect is to inhibit or delay ovulation. ella cuts the chances of becoming pregnant by about 85 percent for at least 120 hours after unprotected sex.
Plan B One-Step and other levonorgestrel pills a should be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Recent research shows that the levonorgestrel pills may be effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex but are more effective the sooner they are taken. Next Choice and generic levonorgestrel tablets work similarly to Plan B One-Step. .
If you need emergency contraception, the best thing you can do is talk to your health care provider about your options. In some areas, you can get emergency contraception (including ulipristal and levonorgestrel) through online services such as PRJKT RUBY (www.prjktruby.com/emergency-contraception) and Nurx (www.nurx.com).
You can buy the levonorgestrel emergency contraceptive pills over the counter without a prescription. You must ask for them at the pharmacy counter. ella is available only by prescription, but women could keep a supply at home.
For information on emergency contraception, visit www.not-2-late.com or call Planned Parenthood at 1-800-230-PLAN to locate a health care professional who can help you. The website and hotlines also provide information about which pharmacies sell emergency contraceptives because not all pharmacies carry them.
Side effects and warnings. Emergency contraceptive pills should not be used regularly as birth control because they can disrupt your menstrual cycle. They are also not 100 percent effective and can cause side effects such as nausea and vomiting, headaches, breast tenderness, dizziness and bloating. Your health care professional may prescribe medication with emergency contraceptive pills to minimize nausea and vomiting. Emergency contraceptive pills that contain only progestin cause fewer side effects.
Because emergency contraceptive pills are intended to be used only as their name implies—during an emergency, when other contraceptives failed or were not used—women who might otherwise not be able to take birth control pills on a regular basis may be able to use emergency contraceptive pills. Discuss your options with a health care professional.
And if you waited longer than 72 hours after unprotected sex, you have another option. You can have an IUD inserted by a health care professional up to 120 hours (five days) after unprotected sex; this should prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in most cases. The same precautions apply for using an IUD as an emergency contraceptive as for choosing it as a birth control method: If you are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (if you have multiple sexual partners) or if you have a recent history of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), you aren't a good candidate for this type of emergency contraception.
Long-Acting Hormonal Methods
There are several options for women who want long-term, but not permanent, protection against pregnancy. These options rely on estrogen-progestin or progestin alone to prevent ovulation. They include:
- Progestin shots (Depo-Provera [DMPA], or the low-dose form, Depo-Subq-Provera): This method provides pregnancy protection for up to three months. A health care professional injects the medication into your buttocks or upper arm muscle. You will need to return to your health care professional's office every three months for another injection to continue protection. This option may bring some changes in menstrual bleeding. Early on, you may experience spotting. Later, many women stop having periods altogether. It is OK not to have a period when using progestin shots. With this birth control method, the uterine lining doesn't grow thick enough to shed and cause menstruation. Progestin shots have been shown to reduce the risk of uterine (endometrial) cancer and prevent anemia and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Side effects may include bloating/weight gain, headaches, depression, loss of interest in sex and hair loss, and it usually takes 12 weeks before the effects of the shot disappear. Some studies have shown a link between Depo-Provera and a loss of bone density, which can lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis. The bone density may not return completely after discontinuing Depo-Provera. Because this bone density loss is greater with long-term use, talk to your health care professional about another method of birth control after two years on Depo-Provera.
- Implantable contraceptives (Nexplanon). Nexplanon is a matchstick-size implant that contains the progestin etonogestrel. It prevents pregnancy by stopping release of an egg from your ovary and also by changing the mucus in your cervix and the lining of your uterus, inhibiting conception. A health care provider implants one rod in the inside of your upper arm, which can be left in place for up to three years. It must be placed and removed by a provider who has been trained to do the implants. Nexplanon is more than 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, but it may not be as effective in very overweight women. Implanon does not protect against HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.
You should not use Nexplanon if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant, have or have had blood clots, have unexplained vaginal bleeding, have liver disease, have or have had breast cancer, or if you are allergic to anything in Nexplanon. You should tell your health care provider about any medications you are taking (prescription, over-the-counter or herbal). Implanon may change your menstrual periods. They may be irregular and unpredictable throughout the time you are using the device. You may have more bleeding, less bleeding, no bleeding or spotting, and the time between your periods may vary.
Benefits. Nexplanon is more than 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when used correctly. It removes the problem of having to remember to take a pill every day or insert a device before intercourse.
Side effects and warnings. Failure to remove Nexplanon at the end of three years may result in infertility, ectopic pregnancy or inability to stop a drug-related adverse event. Like oral contraceptives, Implanon may increase the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. If you use Implanon, you are strongly advised not to smoke, as it may increase the risk of heart-related side effects. Nexplanon and other progestin-only hormonal contraceptives have been associated with higher risk of ectopic pregnancy and ovarian cysts.
Other side effects may include: headache; vaginitis; weight gain; acne; breast pain; viral infections such as colds, sore throats, sinus infections or flu-like symptoms; stomach pain; painful periods; mood swings; nervousness or depression; back pain; nausea; dizziness; pain; and pain at the site of insertion.
- Intrauterine devices(IUD). The IUD is a plastic, T-shaped device that is inserted by a health care professional into the uterus. One type of IUD, the ParaGard IUD, is a T-shaped piece of soft flexible plastic wrapped in copper that can be kept in place for up to 10 years. However, you shouldn't use the ParaGard IUD if you have any risk factors for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or have a recent history of pelvic inflammatory disease or experience heavy menstrual bleeding because a copper IUD can increase heavy bleeding.A levonorgestrel-releasing IUD (Mirena) can be kept in place for three to five years, depending on the IUD you choose. During that time, it slowly releases a low dose of the same progestin, levonorgestrel, found in many birth control pills. The levonorgestrel thickens cervical mucous, preventing sperm from reaching an egg. It also helps reduce cramping and bleeding. Once it's removed, pregnancy becomes possible almost immediately. You shouldn't use the Mirena IUD if you have a history of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) unless you have had a subsequent normal pregnancy.
Although experts do not completely understand how the IUD prevents pregnancy, they believe the device causes just enough tissue disturbances in the uterus to create an unfriendly environment for sperm. Few, if any, sperm can make it through the uterus to the fallopian tubes, so fertilization can't occur. The progestin in the progestin-releasing IUD thickens the cervical mucus and blocks sperm. The copper released by the copper-coil IUD also helps repel sperm.Some women are reluctant to use IUDs because of the damaging effects caused by the Dalkon Shield, an IUD popular in the 1970s. That IUD was withdrawn from the market in 1975. Newer IUDs are constructed differently and are considered safe and effective for women with low risk of sexually transmitted diseases.Benefits. IUDs are highly effective in preventing pregnancy; they also provide some protection against ectopic pregnancies. Once the IUD is inserted, it requires no care other than checking the strings attached to the IUD to ensure that it remains in place. The strings are fine threads that hang into the cervix and can be felt from the vagina.Side effects and warnings. The most common side effects associated with ParaGard IUD use are cramping and heavy bleeding. Women using the Mirena IUD may initially have irregular periods/bleeding. After a few months, you may experience lighter periods or no periods at all.Use of all IUDs has been associated with an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), so women who have a recent history of PID or who are at high risk for contracting STDs should not use the IUD. Cramping, pain and heavy bleeding associated with IUD use in some women is most common at the time of insertion. Menstrual-related symptoms and discomfort may subside after several months.
Barrier methods are less effective than hormonal methods but cause fewer side effects and are associated with less risk. The effectiveness of barrier forms of contraception can be increased when used with spermicide.
- The male condom. The condom is a sheath made of latex or polyurethane that is placed on the penis just prior to intercourse to prevent sperm from entering the uterus. Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, provide the best available means of reducing the risk of transmission of many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV and trichomoniasis. Condoms also can reduce the risk of genital herpes, syphilis, chancroid and human papillomavirus infection, but only when the infected areas are covered or protected by the condom, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Condoms made of lambskin, however, do not offer such protection because they have microscopic holes that may stop sperm but are large enough to allow viruses to pass through.
The FDA approved the female condom in 1993. It is a soft, thin, polyurethane sheath with two flexible rings, one that contains the closed end of the sheath and is inserted into the vagina. The other ring stays outside the vagina.
- Spermicides. Spermicides are nonprescription, nonhormonal chemical products containing the active ingredient nonoxynol-9 (N-9). They can be used alone or in combination with other barrier contraceptives. Spermicides are available as foam, cream, gel, suppository and film, and, when used with other barrier contraceptives, are more effective than either method used alone.
- Diaphragms and cervical caps. These barrier contraceptives require a prescription and initial fitting by a health care professional. The diaphragm is a soft rubber dome with a flexible rim that covers the cervix. The cervical cap fits snugly on the surface of the cervix. Both devices block sperm from entering the uterus but should be used along with a spermicide.
Both the diaphragm and the cervical cap can be inserted up to six hours before intercourse and should remain in place for six to eight hours after intercourse. You must remove a diaphragm after this period of time, but you can leave a cervical cap in place for up to 24 hours.
These devices are easy to insert and remove for most women, although some women can't use the cervical cap because they have an irregularly shaped cervix. Proper fit of either device is important. If you choose one of these options, see your health care professional once a year to have it replaced. Pregnancy and childbirth can change how these devices fit. You should also carefully examine your diaphragm or cervical cap before each use to be sure it is not punctured or torn.
Benefits. One benefit of the barrier method is availability: Condoms and spermicides can be purchased over the counter (without a prescription).
Side effects. Some women and men experience allergic reactions to certain spermicides or to rubber or latex used in condoms, diaphragms or cervical caps. Consult with a health care professional if you develop any symptoms after using contraception. Symptoms might include:
- Respiratory distress
- Hay fever-type reactions such as itchy, swollen eyes, runny nose and sneezing
- Asthma-type symptoms such as chest tightness, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath
- The Contraceptive Sponge. The vaginal sponge (Today), which had been withdrawn from the market, won FDA re-approval in April 2005. The one-gram sponge is available over the counter, is 80 to 91 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and contains the spermicide nonoxynol-9. It is more effective in women who haven't given birth. When moistened with water and placed in the vagina, it releases the spermicide and begins working right away and for the next 24 hours (and it can be used repeatedly within this timeframe). The sponge should be left in place for at least six hours after intercourse. Don't leave it in for more than 30 hours.
Natural Family Planning
Couples using this method identify a woman's most fertile period by tracking her menstrual cycle. A calendar, body temperature and physical symptoms, such as the consistency of cervical mucus, are used to determine when ovulation is likely, and you avoid intercourse during this time.
Benefits and risks. The most obvious benefit to natural family planning is that no artificial devices or hormones are used to prevent pregnancy. Little to no cost is involved. But, experts say, while these methods can work, a couple needs to be extremely motivated to use them effectively and accurately to prevent pregnancy.
Permanent Contraception (sterilization)
Permanent contraception is the most common type of contraception overall, and it is a particularly common choice for women age 35 and older. Female sterilization closes a woman's fallopian tubes by blocking, tying or cutting them so an egg cannot travel to the uterus. There are two primary forms of female sterilization: a fairly new nonsurgical implant system (sold under the brand name Essure), and the traditional tubal ligation procedure (done via laparoscopy or minilaparotomy), often called "getting your tubes tied."
- Nonsurgical permanent birth control. Sometimes called fallopian tube occlusion, the nonsurgical permanent contraception procedure can be performed in your doctor's office with local anesthesia. The Essure system uses specially designed spring-like coils called micro inserts. (Essure contains nickel and shouldn't be used by women with a nickel allergy.) During the procedure, your doctor uses a special instrument called a hysteroscope to place the insert through your vagina and cervix into the opening of your fallopian tube in your uterus. There is no incision. Within three months, the insert causes your body to form a tissue barrier that prevents sperm from reaching the egg. During this three-month period, you need to use another form of birth control. After three months, you have to return to your doctor's office for a special x-ray to make sure your tubes are completely blocked. In clinical studies, most women reported little to no pain and were able to return to their normal activities in a day or two. In 2016, the FDA ordered changes in the package labeling for Essure to include a boxed warning and a "patient checklist," both designed to ensure that women understand the risks and benefits of the device. The FDA is also requiring Bayer, the manufacturer of Essure, to conduct a clinical study to determine risks of Essure for particular women. The government agency has received about 10,000 complaints about Essure since its release in 2002.
- Tubal ligation. With this type of sterilization procedure, your fallopian tubes are blocked with a ring or burned or clipped shut. This procedure is typically performed under general anesthesia in a hospital. It can be done via a laparoscopy or a minilaparotomy.
- Laparoscopy:The surgeon makes a small incision through the abdomen and inserts a special instrument called a laparoscope to view the pelvic region and tubes. He or she then closes the tubes using clips, tubal rings or electrocoagulation (using an electric current to cauterize and destroy a portion of the tube). The patient can usually go home the same day and resume intercourse as soon as it's comfortable. Risks include pain, bleeding, infection and other postsurgical complications, as well as an ectopic, or tubal, pregnancy.
- Minilaparotomy.During a minilaparotomy, the surgeon makes a small incision (about two inches long) and ties and cuts the tubes without the use of a viewing instrument. In general, minilaparotomy is a good choice for women who undergo sterilization right after childbirth. Patients usually need a few days to recover and can resume intercourse after consulting with their doctors.
- Vasectomy. Male sterilization is called a vasectomy. This procedure is performed in the doctor's office. The scrotum is numbed with an anesthetic, so the doctor can make a small incision to access the vas deferens, the tubes through which sperm travels from the testicle to the penis. The doctor then seals, ties or cuts the vas deferens. Following a vasectomy, a man continues to ejaculate, but the fluid does not contain sperm. Temporary swelling and pain are common side effects of surgery. A newer approach to this procedure can reduce swelling and bleeding.
Benefits and risks. Sterilization is a highly effective way to permanently prevent pregnancy—it's considered more than 99 percent effective, meaning less than one woman in 100 will get pregnant after having a sterilization procedure. However, a vasectomy is not effective for about three months; a doctor will perform a sperm test to determine when the vasectomy can be relied on to prevent pregnancy. Surgery for female sterilization is more complex and carries greater risk than surgery to sterilize men, and recovery takes longer. Reversing sterilization in men and women is extremely difficult, however, and often unsuccessful. There is a small possibility of getting pregnant after sterilization; some evidence suggests that women who are younger when they are sterilized have a higher risk of getting pregnant.
Couples who are not sure about sterilization but want to postpone having children for at least five to 10 years should first consider using long-acting contraceptive methods such as IUDs or hormonal shots or implants before choosing sterilization.
Facts to Know
- Many women do not get the protection they expect from their birth control methods because they do not use the methods correctly. Nearly half of women using birth control experience unplanned pregnancies, even though many methods are nearly 100 percent effective when used properly.
- Birth control pills, also called oral contraceptives, are now available in a variety of low-dose options that are safe and effective for most healthy women. Birth control pills include combination pills, which contain estrogen and progestin, and a "mini-pill" option that does not contain estrogen.
- Oral contraceptives may reduce the risk of ovarian and uterine cancers and provide other health benefits such as regulating menstrual cycles; one brand of oral contraceptives has been shown to be effective for treating symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome.
- When used consistently and correctly, condoms offer the best available means of reducing the risk of infection from the following STDs: gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. Condoms can also reduce the risk of genital herpes, syphilis, chancroid and HPV infection, but only when the infected areas are covered or protected by the condom.
- Women who have medical or religious concerns about artificial birth control methods can use fertility awareness methods, sometimes called natural family planning. These methods require that couples be motivated and adhere to a schedule that avoids sex when a woman is ovulating and most likely to be fertile.
- According to the Guttmacher Institute, seven in 10 teens have had intercourse by their 19th birthday. A sexually active teenager who doesn't use contraception has a 90 percent chance of becoming pregnant within one year. Studies show that teens who talk to their parents about sex, pregnancy, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases are less likely to become sexually active at an early age and more likely to use protection when they do have sex.
- Sterilization is the second most popular form of birth control in the United States, right after the pill. It is considered a permanent form of birth control.
- It can be helpful to review your contraceptive options as you age to make sure your current birth control method continues to fit your lifestyle and reproductive health needs.
Questions to Ask
Review the following Questions to Ask about contraception so you're prepared to discuss this important health issue with your health care professional.
- How effective is this contraceptive option, and how do I use it correctly? What are its risks and benefits for me?
- (For implantable contraceptives): Do you have experience in inserting the implant? Will it hurt me? After it's inserted, will it be visible?
- What is the difference between the old and new IUDs? Are the new IUDs really safer to use?
- Should I consider the pill? What are its advantages and disadvantages?
- What is the difference between barrier devices like the diaphragm and cervical cap and the vaginal ring? What is the ring and how does it work?
- Does this contraception option protect me from AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases?
- If I want to consider permanent contraception, what are my options?
Questions To Ask Yourself
- How important is it to you and your partner that you do not become pregnant at this time?
- What is the likelihood that you and your partner will be able to follow the requirements of the contraceptive method you choose?
- Do you take medication or have a medical condition that might make some contraceptives a poor choice for you?
- Do you smoke?
- How often do you have intercourse?
- How old are you? Do you have children, or do you want to have children some day?
- Will your health insurance pay for your contraceptive choice? If not, can you afford it long term?
Questions to Ask
- What do I do if I miss a day of taking my birth control pills?
The pills you have to worry most about missing are the ones right before and right after the seven placebo pills in your pack. Known as the pill-free interval, the placebos are designed to be taken the week you have your period to help you stay in the rhythm of taking a pill every day. If you start a new pack late or take longer than seven days "pill free," you might ovulate and could become pregnant. Read the package insert that came with your pills; it will explain what to do about missed pills. Or call your health care professional. In the meantime, use backup contraception just to be safe. In general, if you miss a pill, take it as soon as you remember and then continue taking one pill each day as prescribed (depending on when you missed your pill, you may take two pills on the same day). If you miss two or more pills in the first week of your pill cycle and you have unprotected intercourse during this week, consider using emergency contraception. If you miss pills in the fourth week of a 28-day pack, those pills are likely placebo if you're using a 21/7 regimen. However, some of the newer formulations may contain active pills, so read the package insert for instructions.
- I've heard that I can't get pregnant while I'm breastfeeding. Does that mean I don't need a contraceptive?
The lactational amenorrhea method (LAM) refers to the natural cessation of a woman's menstrual period while she is breastfeeding. Ovulation doesn't occur at this time, so birth control is automatic. LAM is only effective in preventing pregnancy if the mother is breastfeeding exclusively; her baby is less than six months old; and the mother's periods have not yet returned. If a woman starts to get her period again, it's a pretty good indication that she's ovulating and able to get pregnant. But, in general, even though breastfeeding does provide some contraceptive protection, it is not a completely reliable form of contraception. There are several birth control options that are safe for breastfeeding women and their babies, so why take chances? Here are your options:
- The mini-pill is a progestin-only pill that usually has no negative impact on milk production (combination pills can dry up milk) and may even provide a little boost in milk volume. You can start this pill right after delivery under the guidance of your health care professional.
- Nonhormonal contraception methods such as barrier devices and copper IUDs are preferred in women who are nursing because they don't contain hormones that could affect milk supply or pass through the milk. If hormonal methods are the only option, progestin-only birth control is preferred in women who are breast-feeding.
- Barrier methods such as condoms and spermicides have no impact on breastfeeding and may be helpful in overcoming vaginal dryness caused by breastfeeding (use lubricated condoms). They can be used immediately postpartum. If you want to use a diaphragm or cervical cap, wait until after your sixth postpartum week; diaphragms and cervical caps need to be fitted after you completely heal, and it's not advisable to use them until you've stopped bleeding.
- You can have an IUD inserted between six and eight weeks postpartum.
- I've been taking birth control pills for several years. Do I need to give my body a rest and stop taking them for a while?
There is no scientific evidence that taking oral contraceptives does any long-term harm to your endocrine system, which regulates hormones.
- My partner hates to use condoms because he says they make sex less pleasurable. Is there anything else I can do to protect myself from STDs?
You could try the female condom, which has a looser fit. There are also male condoms designed to enhance pleasure, which are sold over the counter.
You might try a few things to make condom use more fun. How about unrolling it onto your partner's penis yourself?
Condoms sometimes help men maintain an erection; tell your partner you want to use a condom so sex will last longer. If all else fails, refuse to have sex with him if he doesn't use a condom or find other ways to enjoy each other sexually. (Keep in mind that avoiding penis-vagina contact is the only way to stay safe from pregnancy, but other sexual acts, such as oral sex, still put you at risk for some STDs.)
- How do I keep a condom from slipping?
First, check during sex that the condom is still where it should be. Second, make sure your partner knows to withdraw soon after ejaculation, before the penis gets smaller. And third, while he is withdrawing, he should hold the rim of the condom.
- I've heard that birth control pills cause cancer, but I've also heard they can protect against cancer. Which is true?
Newer low-estrogen birth control pills do not carry the risk of increased breast cancer that higher-dose estrogen pills did. An August 2014 study published in Cancer Research that looked at breast cancer risk and birth control pill use in women ages 20 to 49 found breast cancer risk was higher in women who had previously taken high-dose estrogen birth control pills, but not in women who had taken low-dose estrogen pills.
There is also evidence, however, that use of birth control pills decreases the incidence of uterine, ovarian and possibly colorectal cancer. The longer a woman uses the pill, the more her risk of developing these cancers is reduced. Birth control pills may also protect against developing breast and ovarian cysts. Discuss the risks and benefits of birth control pills with your health care professional.
- I've had all the children I want, but I'm not ready for sterilization. I've been considering the IUD. Is it safe?
Yes. The fears surrounding intrauterine devices (IUDs) stem mainly from problems with the Dalkon Shield, an IUD introduced in the 1970s. The construction of the Dalkon Shield increased the risk of bacterial infections, which resulted in pelvic inflammatory disease for many women. Today's IUDs are constructed differently and are safe and highly effective. IUDs are not good options for women at risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections, however.
- I am 16 years old and would like to use birth control pills. The problem is that I smoke cigarettes. My mom used to smoke and was told she couldn't use them. Can I?
In women younger than 35, the benefits of birth control pills appear to outweigh the risks, even in heavy smokers, unless there is a family history of blood clots. However, smoking puts you at risk for numerous serious health problems, including cancer and heart disease, so you should talk to your health care professional about ways to help you kick the habit.
Organizations and Support
For information and support on Contraception, please see the recommended organizations, books and Spanish-language resources listed below.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
Address: 409 12th Street, SW
P.O. Box 96920
Washington, DC 20090
American Sexual Health Association (ASHA)
Address: P.O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM)
Address: 1209 Montgomery Highway
Birmingham, AL 35216
ASHA's STI Resource Center Hotline
Address: American Social Health Association
P.O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
CDC National Prevention Information Network
Address: P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, MD 20849
Emergency Contraception Hotline
Address: Office of Population Research
Princeton University, Wallace Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544
Hotline: 1-888-NOT-2-LATE (1-888-668-2528)
Address: 1301 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036
International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC)
Address: 333 Seventh Avenue, 6th floor
New York, NY 10001
National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL)
Address: 1156 15th Street, NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
National Abortion Federation
Address: 1660 L Street, NW, Suite 450
Washington, DC 20036
National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention
Address: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
Hotline: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
National Women's Health Network (NWHN)
Address: 1413 K Street, NW, 4th floor
Washington, DC 20005
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Address: 434 West 33rd Street
New York, NY 10001
Hotline: 1-800-230-PLAN (1-800-230-7526)
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
Address: 90 John Street, Suite 704
New York, NY 10038
A Gynecologist's Second Opinion: The Questions & Answers You Need to Take Charge of Your Health
by William H. Parker, Rachel L. Parker
All About Birth Control: A Complete Guide
by Jon Knowles
by Miriam Stoppard
Sexual Health Questions You Have...Answers You Need
by Michael V. Reitano, Charles Ebel
The Whole Truth About Contraception: A Guide to Safe and Effective Choices
by MD, MPH Beverly Winikoff, Suzanne Wymelenberg
The Yale Guide to Women's Reproductive Health: From Menarche to Menopause
by Mary Jane Minkin, Carol V. Wright
Center for Young Women's Health
Address: Center for Young Women's Health
333 Longwood Avenue, 5th Floor
Boston, MA 02115