While abstinence is the only guaranteed way to prevent unintended pregnancy, those who choose to be sexually active have a number of effective birth control options to choose from. Birth control, or contraception, may work in a variety of ways. Your health care provider can help you choose a birth control method that best suits your needs.
Barrier birth control methods
Barrier methods work by blocking a man's sperm from reaching and fertilizing a woman's egg. The most popular example is male condoms, which are widely available and relatively inexpensive. In addition to preventing pregnancy, when used correctly, condoms are also effective at helping prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). There is also a female condom, which a woman wears inside of her vagina. It can be inserted up to eight hours before sexual intercourse. Condoms can be used only once.
Other barrier birth control methods include a cervical cap or diaphragm, which block sperm from entering the cervix. A woman must be fitted for a cap or diaphragm, and these methods must be used with spermicidal foam or gel.
Hormonal birth control
Hormonal methods work primarily by preventing a woman from ovulating. The most popular example is "the Pill," or oral contraceptives. A wide variety of birth control pills are on the market. They fall into two main categories: combined and progestin-only. The combined form includes both estrogen and progestin hormones. Progestin-only birth control pills do not include estrogen and may be an option for women who cannot take estrogen. The progestin-only form of birth control pills is sometimes called the "minipill."
However, hormonal birth control options don't begin and end with the Pill. There are also hormonal implants, patches, contraceptive rings and a birth control shot, which lasts for three months. Each of these types of birth control requires a doctor's prescription.
Intrauterine devices (IUDs)
Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are T-shaped devices that are implanted into a woman's uterus.
There are two forms:
- The copper IUD, which can last up to 10 years.
- The hormonal IUD, which releases a small amount of progestin into the uterus and is good for about five years.
- IUDs must be implanted by a doctor.
The fertility awareness method, or FAM, relies on a woman's understanding of changes in her body that signify she is ovulating. Women who practice FAM may chart their body temperatures, changes in cervical mucus, time and flow of monthly periods, and how they feel in general. Once they feel comfortable and confident in predicting their more fertile days during the month, they can abstain from sex during those days.
Surgical birth control
Surgical sterilization offers a permanent method of birth control for men or women who are sure they are done having children. Women can opt to have their fallopian tubes closed or permanently blocked to prevent eggs from getting to the uterus. A man can have a vasectomy — a surgical procedure that typically is done on an outpatient basis — that blocks the sperm from reaching the penis.
The "morning-after pill" is not a traditional form of birth control and is not meant to be used as a routine method. It involves a strong dose of hormones that are taken after a sexual encounter to prevent pregnancy from occurring. Reasons it might be used include a condom breaking or other birth control method somehow failing, a coerced sexual encounter, or a woman having forgotten to take her birth control pills.
For an extensive list of birth control medications, visit our main Birth Control page. Consult your health care provider to help you choose a birth control method that best suits your needs.