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Home > Fitness & Health > Health Library > Birth Control
Sometimes a woman may not use birth control, or her method may fail. If this happens to you, you may still be able to prevent pregnancy if you act quickly. For more information, see the topic Emergency Contraception.
Birth control is any method used to prevent pregnancy. Another word for birth control is contraception (say "kon-truh-SEP-shun").
If you have sex without birth control, there is a chance that you could get pregnant. This is true even if you have not started having periods yet or you are getting close to menopause.
The only sure way to prevent pregnancy is to not have sex. But finding a good method of birth control you can use every time can help you avoid an unplanned pregnancy.
There are many different kinds of birth control. Each has pros and cons. Learning about all the methods will help you find one that is right for you.
For hormonal or barrier methods to work best, you have to use them exactly the way your doctor or the package instructions say. Even then, accidents can happen. So it is a good idea to keep emergency birth control on hand as backup protection.
The best method of birth control is one that protects you every time you have sex. And with many types of birth control, that depends on how well you use it. To find a method that will work for you every time, some things to think about include:
If you are using a method now that you are not happy with, talk to your doctor about other choices.
Some birth control methods may not be safe for you, depending on your health. To make sure a method is right for you, your doctor will need to know if you:
You can buy:
You need to see a doctor or other health professional to:
There are many methods of birth control. Learn about the different kinds of birth control to help you choose the best one for you. When making your choice, also consider that only a condom will help protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). To protect yourself and your partner against STIs, use a condom (along with your chosen birth control method) every time you have sex.
Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) is the best reversible method for preventing pregnancy. "Long-acting" means that they will prevent pregnancy for years. "Reversible" means that you can have them removed if you want to get pregnant later. LARC includes implants and intrauterine devices (IUDs).
The hormonal IUD typically reduces menstrual flow and cramping over time. On the other hand, the copper IUD can cause longer and heavier periods. But the hormonal IUD can have other side effects, including spotting, mood swings, and breast tenderness. These side effects occur less frequently than with other progestin-only methods.
Hormonal methods are very reliable means of birth control. Hormonal methods use two basic formulas:
Combination and progestin-only methods are prescribed for women for different reasons. Each type of method has its pros and cons.
Barrier methods (including the diaphragm; cervical cap; male condom; female condom; and spermicidal foam, sponge, gel, suppository, or film) prevent sperm from entering the uterus and reaching the egg. Typically, barrier methods are not highly effective, but they can have fewer side effects than hormonal methods or IUDs. Spermicides and condoms should be used together or along with another method to increase their effectiveness. Barrier methods can interrupt sex, because they must be used every time you have sex.
Condoms (male or female) should always be used if you are at risk of getting or spreading a sexually transmitted infection, such as genital herpes, chlamydia, or HIV.
Fertility awareness requires that a couple chart the time during a woman's menstrual cycle when she is most likely to become pregnant and avoid intercourse or use a barrier method during that time. Fertility awareness is not a good choice if you need a highly effective form of birth control.
Breastfeeding may work as a form of birth control in the first 6 months after giving birth if you follow specific guidelines. For this method to work, you must breastfeed your baby every time. You can't use formula or other supplements. This is called the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM).
Sterilization is a surgical procedure done for men or women who decide that they do not want to have any (or more) children. Sterilization is one of the most effective forms of birth control. Sterilization is intended to be permanent, and although you can try to reverse it with another surgery, reversal is not always successful.
Female sterilization is more complicated, has higher risks of problems after surgery, and is more expensive than male sterilization.
Birth control is an important consideration after you have had a child. Your ability to become pregnant again may return within 3 to 6 weeks after childbirth. Think about what type of birth control you will be using, and make a plan during your pregnancy. Most methods of birth control are safe and effective after delivery. But in the first couple of weeks after delivery, it's best to use a method that doesn't contain estrogen. Talk to your doctor about which type is best for you.
With so many methods available and so many factors to consider, choosing birth control can be difficult. You may be able to decide on a method by asking yourself the following questions:
One of your first considerations might be to determine whether you want permanent or temporary birth control. In other words, you should consider whether you want to conceive any (or more) children. This is a decision that will affect the rest of your life and can be made only after thinking it through carefully.
If you know that you will not ever want to conceive a pregnancy, tubal ligation for you or a vasectomy for your partner is a reasonable option to consider.
If you are not sure about the future even though you know how you feel now, a temporary method is a better choice. If you are young, have few or no children, are choosing sterilization because your partner wants it, or think it will solve money or relationship problems, you may regret your decision later.
Some birth control methods require more effort than others. Be honest about how much effort you are willing to put into birth control. Birth control must be used correctly in order to prevent pregnancy. If you are not comfortable with or might not consistently use a birth control method for any reason, that method is not likely to be reliable for you in the long run.
If an unplanned pregnancy would seriously impact your plans for the future, choose a birth control method that is highly effective. If an unplanned pregnancy would be welcome, you may feel comfortable using a less reliable method.
Consider how important it is to you to avoid pregnancy, and then look at how well each birth control method works. Hormonal methods and IUDs work very well. Barrier methods such as condoms, diaphragms, and spermicides are only moderately effective. Fertility awareness is even less effective.
To be effective, birth control pills require you to take a pill every day. Barrier methods have to be used before sex. Fertility awareness requires that you watch your temperature and other signs closely. You must also avoid sex on days when you could get pregnant.
Consider how comfortable you feel about using a particular method of birth control. If you are not comfortable with or might not consistently use a birth control method for any reason, that method is not likely to be reliable for you in the long run.
Unless you know that your partner has no other sex partners and is free of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), you are at risk for STI infection. If you are at risk, protect yourself from infection every time you have sex. Use a condom in addition to any other birth control method you choose.
You can choose between a male or female condom to reduce your risk for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, genital warts, herpes, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and other infections.
If you have health problems or other risk factors, some birth control methods may not be right for you.
Other health problems that might keep you from using a particular birth control method are relatively rare, especially in young women. But before using any method, talk with your health professional to see if it is safe for you.
Other things to consider when choosing a method of birth control include:
Thinking about the pros and cons of hormonal birth control methods may help you choose the one that is best for you.
After you have looked at the facts about the different methods and thought about your own values and needs, you can choose the method that will work best for you. Using condoms with any method may increase its reliability and helps to protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. Personal stories may help you decide.
You can use emergency contraception if a condom breaks, you've forgotten a pill, you are taking other medicines that may affect contraception medicines, or you have had unprotected sex. Emergency contraception does not protect against sexually transmitted infections.
For more information, see the topic Emergency Contraception.
For many methods of birth control, you'll need to see your doctor to get a prescription. If you want to start birth control, talk with your doctor about options that are right for you. And if you have problems with a birth control method, talk with your doctor. He or she may recommend another birth control method or help you solve the problem you are having.
Other Works Consulted
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2010). Noncontraceptive uses of hormonal contraceptives. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 110. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 115(1): 207–218.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). Long-acting reversible contraception: Implants and intrauterine devices. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 121. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118(1): 184–196.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2015). Emergency contraception. Practice Bulletin No. 152. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 126(3): e1–e11. DOI: 10.1097/ACOG.0000000000001047. Accessed online September 18, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). U.S. medical eligibility criteria for contraceptive use. MMWR, 59(RR-4). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5904a1.htm?s_cid=rr5904a1_w.
Mishell DR (2007). Family planning: Contraception, sterilization, and pregnancy termination. In VL Katz et al., eds., Comprehensive Gynecology, 5th ed., pp. 275–325. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.
Mishell DR (2012). Contraception. In L Goldman, A Shafer, eds., Goldman's Cecil Medicine, 24th ed., pp. 1552–1555. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Stubblefield PG, Roncari, DM. (2012). Family planning. In JS Berek, ed., Berek and Novak's Gynecology, 15th ed., pp. 211–269. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Current as of:
February 11, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Sarah Marshall MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineFemi Olatunbosun MB, FRCSC - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Current as of: February 11, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Femi Olatunbosun MB, FRCSC - Obstetrics and Gynecology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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