Birth control is a term used to describe an artificial or natural means to prevent pregnancy.
There are various methods of birth control available today. The most common artificial methods are male/female condoms, spermicides, sponge, diaphragm, cervical cap, oral contraceptives (birth control pills), injectable contraceptions (Depo-Provera, Lunelle), IUDs and surgical sterilization.
The natural methods include complete abstinence (no sexual intercourse), periodic abstinence and withdrawal.
The male condom (also known as a prophylactic or rubber) is a thin sheath, usually made of latex rubber, that covers the erect penis. When used correctly, a latex condom is about 85 percent effective, both for preventing pregnancy and decreasing the chance of contracting most STDs, including AIDS. Condoms can be made of animal membrane; however, some experts believe that the pores in such natural “skin” condoms may allow the virus to pass through. To be effective, the condom must be undamaged, applied to the erect penis before any genital contact, and must remain intact and snugly in place until completion of the sexual activity.
The female condom is a lubricated sheath with a flexible polyurethane ring on each end. One ring is inserted into the vagina while the other remains outside. The ring outside covers the labia and keeps the condom in place during intercourse. When in place, the vaginal condom lines the vaginal wall and creates a covered passageway for the penis. To be effective, the condom must be undamaged and inserted before any genital contact. It must also remain inside of the vagina until the completion of intercourse. The estimated effectiveness of the female condom is 74 to 79 percent.
Risks and side effects: The risks of using a male or female condom are minimal. Some people can experience a slight irritation and allergic reaction.
Spermicides are available in foam, jelly, gel and suppositories, and work by forming a physical and chemical barrier to sperm. They can be inserted into the vagina on a diaphragm, a cervical cap, a condom or alone, within an hour before sexual intercourse. If intercourse is repeated, more spermicide should be inserted. The estimated effectiveness is about 70 to 80 percent when used with other barrier contraceptives. They are not very effective when used alone. Risks and side effects: The risks of using spermicides are minimal. Some people can experience a slight irritation and allergic reaction.
The sponge is made of white polyurethane foam (shaped like a small donut) and contains a spermicide. The sponge is inserted into the vagina to cover the cervix during and after intercourse. It is held in place by the vaginal walls and the dimple covering the cervix. It can be kept in place up to 24 hours. The estimated effectiveness is 72 to 82 percent. Risks and side effects: The risks of using a sponge are minimal. Some people may experience a slight irritation and allergic reaction, difficulty in removal, and very rarely, toxic shock syndrome (a bacterial infection associated with the use of highly absorbent tampons).
A diaphragm is made of soft rubber and is shaped like a shallow cup. It has a flexible metal spring rim that fits snugly over the cervix. Before insertion, a spermicidial cream or jelly should be applied into the shallow cup. The diaphragm must be fitted by a health professional and the correct size must be prescribed to ensure a snug seal with the vaginal wall. It must be kept in the vagina at least six to eight hours after intercourse. It is most effective when used with a spermicide. The estimated effectiveness is 82 to 94 percent.
Risks and side effects: The risks of using a diaphragm are minimal. Some people may experience a slight irritation, an allergic reaction, a bladder infection and very rarely, toxic shock syndrome (a bacterial infection caused by use of highly absorbent tampons).
Women who have a severely displaced uterus, cystocoele (a protrusion of the bladder through the vaginal wall), fistulas (openings in the vagina), scoliosis (curvature of the spine), spina bifida, chronic urinary tract infections or a history of toxic shock syndrome, should not use a diaphragm.
The cervical cap is a thimble-shaped rubber cap that fits snugly over the cervix. Like the diaphragm, it blocks sperm from entering the cervical opening. Usually, a small amount of spermicide is used on the inside of the cap to kill any sperm that may break through the seal. The cervical cap must be fitted by a health professional and the correct size prescribed to ensure a snug seal. It must be kept in the vagina at least six to eight hours after intercourse. It is most effective when used with a spermicide. It has an estimated effectiveness of about 82 percent.
Risks and side effects: The risks of using a cervical cap may include abnormal pap tests, vaginal or cervical infections, and very rarely, toxic shock syndrome.
Women who have a severely displaced uterus, fistulas, scoliosis, spina bifida, chronic urinary tract infections, a history of toxic shock syndrome, cervical erosion or laceration, or an elongated or irregular cervix, should not use a cervical cap.
Oral Contraceptives (Birth Control Pills)
At present, more than 20 brand names and more than twice that number of formulations of oral contraceptives are available. Because they are 98 to 99 percent effective, oral contraceptives offer women the most reliable form of easily reversible contraception (other than abstinence) from sexual intercourse.
Birth control pills use synthetic hormones similar to the ones made in the ovaries. There are two types of pills currently manufactured in the United States: a combination pill, with both synthetic progesterone (progestin) and synthetic estrogen; and mini-pills, which contain only progestin.
Although all oral contraceptives prevent sperm from uniting with an egg, they work in slightly different ways. The combination pill keeps the ovaries from releasing an egg. The mini-pill is less reliable in suppressing egg release, but creates changes in the cervix and uterus that make conception less likely.
The mini-pill is less effective than the combination pill, but does not have the risks attributed to estrogen, such as increased possibility of blood clots and nausea. However, the mini-pill causes more problems with spotting and bleeding between periods and therefore, its use is not widespread.
Combination pills come in two types. One provides the same combined dose of synthetic progestin and synthetic estrogen throughout the entire cycle. Others, sometimes called biphasic or triphasic pills vary the levels of these two hormones to more closely approximate a woman’s normal hormonal variations. In some women, these pills have a lower risk of side effects.
The pill essentially works by interfering with a woman’s normal fluctuations in hormone levels, which in turn prevents the egg from maturing and being released. It also acts on the climate of the cervix, uterine lining and fallopian tubes, making them all inhospitable for egg, sperm or embryo.
Combination pills are packaged in several ways: the most common is the 21-day pack. One pill is taken each day for 21 days, then none during the next seven days (for the average 28-day cycle during which menstruation occurs). There are also 28-day packs, with 21 active pills followed by seven inactive ones (placebos).
The mini-pills must be taken at the same time (within three hours) every day.
In addition to effectiveness in preventing conception, oral contraceptives offer other benefits. Menstrual periods are usually lighter, making iron deficiency less likely, and there may be less cramping. Ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, and perhaps endometrial cancer occur less often among pill users. In addition, ectopic pregnancy occurs less frequently among pill users (in the rare instance when pregnancy occurs at all).
Risks and side effects: Minor side effects include headaches, sore breasts, weight gain, feeling sick to your stomach, irregular bleeding, and depression. Serious possible side effects are more likely to occur in women over the age of 35. These include an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and formation of blood clots in the veins (thrombosis). These side effects are even more likely to occur among women who smoke; thus, the pill is not recommended for women who smoke. Women with a history of blood clots, high blood pressure, severe diabetes, or breast or uterine cancer, should not take the pill.
Possible Interactions: There is a possibility that the herb St. John’s wort may interfere with the pill’s effectiveness, therefore it is best not to take this herb at the same time that you are on the pill. Also, several antibiotics can interfere with the effectiveness of the birth control pill. It is best to consult with a pharmacist or your doctor to determine if any medication you are taking might interfere with the pill.
Ortho Evra, Contraceptive Patch
The Contraceptive Patch has the similar properties as the oral birth control pill, but is applied to the skin of the lower abdomen, buttocks, upper arm or upper body. It is worn continuously for 7 days and then replaced with another patch every week for 3 weeks, followed by one week without a patch. Estrogen levels are higher with the patch than with birth control pills. In theory, higher estrogen levels may increase the risk of blood clots. It is currently unclear if women who use the patch have higher risks of blood clots when compared to women who use birth control pills.
Risks and side effects: Side effects of the Contraceptive Patch may include nausea or breast tenderness, and rare risks of blood clots, heart attack and stroke, particularly if women smoke while using the contraceptive.
Contraceptive Vaginal Ring
The contraceptive vaginal ring or NuvaRing is a plastic ring coated with both estrogen and progesterone. It has similar properties to birth control pills but it is inserted in the vagina. It is worn continuously for three weeks followed by one week without the ring. Lower doses of hormones are released from the NuvaRing than from birth control pills.
Risks and side effects: Side effects of the vaginal ring may include nausea or breast tenderness, and rare risks of blood clots, heart attack and stroke, particularly if women smoke while using the contraceptive.
Depo-Provera is an injectable form of a progestin (like the oral minipill). Each injection provides contraceptive protection for 14 weeks. It is injected every three months into a muscle in the buttocks or arm. Its estimated effectiveness is 99 percent.
Risks and side effects: The risks of using Depo-Provera may include menstrual cycle irregularity, headaches, nervousness, depression, nausea, dizziness, change of appetite, breast tenderness, weight gain, enlargement of ovaries and/or fallopian tubes, excessive growth of body and facial hair. Depo-Provera can also cause bone loss. Women who use this method for two years or longer should get a special X-ray to measure the strength of their bones.
Implanon is a progesterone-only implant. It lasts for three years and is effective within 24 hours of insertion. It is inserted in the upper arm in a doctor’s office using local numbing medicine. It is made to gradually release progesterone. Its estimated effectiveness is 99 percent.
Risks and side effects: The risks of using Implanon are rare but may include rash, infection or movement of the rod in the arm. Other effects may include menstrual cycle irregularity, change of appetite, breast tenderness, and weight gain.
The Morning After Pill (Emergency Contraceptive)
The morning after pill (MAP) is an increasingly accepted means of contraception. It is best used in situations when intercourse happens infrequently or unexpectedly. The MAP is a special formulation of the same (or similar) hormones used in birth control pills. It is given in one or two doses. To be effective, the first dose must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse, the sooner the better.
Risks and side effects: It can cause nausea and breast tenderness, and it can disrupt the regularity of the menstrual cycle.
Approved in the U.S. in September 2000, RU486 (mifepristone) causes the uterine lining to shed after an egg is implanted. It is taken as a series of pills over the course of a few weeks and will interrupt a very early pregnancy. It is very widely used in Europe and has been approved in the U.S. since September 2000. It is best to have this pill prescribed by a physician or health care setting that is familiar with its use and can follow users carefully to assure optimal outcomes.
Risks and side effects: Possible side effects include weight gain, sore breasts, menstrual cycle irregularity, and very rarely life-threatening infection.
IUDs are small devices that fit inside the uterus. Some contain copper or synthetic progesterone; others are made of white plastic. One or more strings are usually attached to IUDs. When the IUD is in place, these strings extend into the upper vagina. The IUD alters the uterine and tubal fluids, which inhibits the transport of sperm through the cervical mucus and uterus. Its estimated effectiveness is 96 percent.
Risks and side effects: The risks of using IUDs are cramps, bleeding, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) an infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes, infertility, and very rarely, perforation of the uterus.
IUDs should not be used by women who are pregnant, who have an active/recent or recurrent pelvic infection, acute cervicitis, vaginitis, abnormal pap tests, irregular or abnormal pelvic bleeding, disorders of the blood, endometriosis, exposure to DES in utero, an abortion within the last three months that led to an infection, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, anemia, bicornate uterus, cervical stenosis, endometrial polyps, severe menstrual cramps or bleeding, small uterus or valvular heart disease.
Female sterilization (tubal ligation) involves either cutting, constricting, clipping cutting or blocking the fallopian tubes to prevent the male sperm from reaching the ova. This can be done with a laparoscope (camera through the belly button) or hysteroscope (camera through the vaginal to the uterus). Male sterilization (vasectomy) involves cutting the two vas deferens (the ducts that carry sperm from the testes to the seminal vesicles).
Both of these procedures are about 99 percent effective.
Risks and side effects: Both of these have the normal risks associated with surgery, including infection or bleeding after the operation.
Complete Abstinence and Periodic Abstinence
Complete abstinence is not engaging in any type of sexual intercourse. Periodic abstinence is not having sexual intercourse during a woman’s fertile period. Also called “natural family planning” or the “rhythm method”, periodic abstinence is dependent on the ability to identify the approximate 10 days in each menstrual cycle that a woman is fertile. Its estimated effectiveness varies from 53 to 86 percent. However, it is important to recognize that many experts in family planning feel that the actual effectiveness of this method is much lower. This is because many women vary from month to month with respect to when they are most fertile.
Withdrawal involves removing the penis from the vagina just before ejaculation so that the sperm is deposited outside the vagina and away from the lips of the vagina, as well. Withdrawal is not very effective, because the drops of fluid that come out of the penis right after it becomes erect can contain enough sperm to cause pregnancy.
Which birth control method do you recommend?
If the condom is recommended, which is more effective - the male or female condom?
What should be done if the condom breaks during intercourse without our knowledge?
If sponges, diaphragms or cervical caps are recommended, how will I know if they are inserted correctly?
Which birth control pill do you recommend?
What happens if I miss a pill?
How long can a woman remain on the pill?
What are the side effects?
Can I have a prescription for the morning after pill, just in case I need it?