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What is Birth Control?

Birth control, also known as contraception, is used to prevent pregnancy. Any device, practice, or substance taken to prevent pregnancy from occurring in any way is a birth control method. Birth Control methods fall into three main categories: Hormonal (those that use hormones to prevent pregnancy), Non- Hormonal (those that do not use hormones to prevent pregnancy), and Natural methods. There are several different methods of birth control, so if you are sexually active or thinking of becoming sexually active and want to prevent pregnancy from occurring, you have a lot of options. Sometimes the amount of different methods can be overwhelming, but speaking with a trusted health professional and doing your own research should help you figure out what methods you’d like to try. Sometimes it can take a few tries to find the right method for you, so it’s important to work with a health professional and be honest about how you feel about the birth control method.

In this section, we review several different birth control methods will be broken up by general category to help you understand what options are out there and help you narrow down the choices. This will help you be better prepared to speak with a health professional about what birth control methods you’d like to try.

Hormonal Methods

Hormonal Birth Control methods regulate the change in hormones during a female’s monthly cycle to prevent ovulation and thicken cervical mucus to make it an uninhabitable environment for sperm. This is done through a combination of different synthetic hormones that mimic estrogen and progesterone that are naturally produced and control the menstrual cycle. Many of these methods require a visit to a health professional or pharmacy, but the visit is typically fairly short, depending on the method. Common hormonal methods include:

  • Contraceptive Patch
    • The patch is a thin, beige piece of adhesive plastic that looks like a square Band- Aid that releases hormones through your skin. You apply a new patch each week and wear no patch on the fourth week, when you will get your period. The patch is waterproof so it can be worn swimming, in the shower, and during exercise and should be placed on the stomach, upper outer arm, butt or upper torso.
  • Depo Provera (the Shot)
    • This method is a contraceptive shot that you get once every three months to prevent ovulation and thicken cervical mucus. The shot must be administered by a health professional, however many people like Depo Provera because of its ease; you only need to remember to go for an appointment every three months.
  • Nexplanon (the Implant)
    • This method is a small rod that releases hormones for up to four years and is inserted under the skin of your upper arm. It’s so small most people can’t see it once it’s inserted. Many people prefer this method because of its ease and privacy; there’s nothing to be lost or forgotten once a health professional inserts it.
  • NuvaRing (the Vaginal Ring)
    • The ring is a small, bendable plastic ring that releases hormones which you insert into your vagina and is left in place for three weeks at a time. The ring is taken out the fourth week, which is when you get your period, and a new ring is inserted at the end of the week. You can have sex while the ring is inserted (many people and their partners report being able to have undisturbed sex), however if it is uncomfortable for you or your partner to have sex with the ring inserted, you can remove it, but must put it back within three hours; this process can only be done once every 24 hours.
  • Oral Contraceptives (the pill)
    • Commonly referred to as “the pill”, oral contraceptives are taken once a day at the same time every day. Despite the name, there are several different types of oral contraceptive pills that differ based on what and how much hormones are in the pills. You can be prescribed combination pills which contain estrogen and progestin to prevent ovulation, or progestin only pills if you’re having negative side effects of the combination pill or have certain risk factors for more severe side effects.
  • Hormonal Intrauterine Devices (IUDs)
    • Hormonal IUDs are small, “T” shaped, plastic devices that are inserted into the uterus by a health professional and release hormones to thicken cervical mucus. The shape of an IUD interferes with the sperm’s ability to navigate through the uterus to the egg which helps prevent pregnancy. Some name brands for Hormonal IUDs are Skyla, Mirena, and Kyleena, but the type that is inserted depends on which brand is right for you. Hormonal IUDs can last for three to six years depending on the brand, but they must be inserted by a health professional.

Non- Hormonal Methods

Non- Hormonal methods of birth control work to create a barrier between the sperm and the egg or to immobilize sperm so they can’t swim through the vagina and reach the egg. Many of these methods can be purchased over the counter and can be used in conjunction with a Hormonal method of contraception to help increase the chance of preventing pregnancy. For example, a female can have an IUD inserted and still use condoms, either internal or external, to prevent pregnancy. Common non- hormonal methods include:

  • Cervical Cap
    • A cervical cap is a silicone cup you insert into your vagina up to two days before sex to cover your cervix to keep sperm out of your uterus. For a cervical cap to be most effective it must be used with spermicide and left in place for at least six hours after the last time you had sex.
  • Diaphragm
    • A diaphragm is a shallow, dome shaped cup made of silicone that is inserted into the vagina to cover the cervix and keep sperm out of the uterus. For a diaphragm to be most effective, you must use it with spermicide. You can put the diaphragm in a few hours before sex, but it must stay in place for at least six hours after sex, but no more than 24 hours.
  • Internal (Female) Condom
    • Internal Condoms are inserted into the vagina or anus before sex and work similarly to external condoms as a barrier method. Many colleges and health centers give them out for free, but they are fairly inexpensive if purchased. All internal condoms are made from polyurethane, making them latex free and a good option for someone with a latex allergy. It is important to only wear one condom at a time; if multiple condoms are worn at once it can cause too much friction and make the condoms tear which allows for ejaculate to leak out.
  • External (Male) Condom
    • External condoms are one of the most popular forms of birth control. They come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors and are fairly inexpensive; many colleges and health centers give them out for free. 12 This barrier method is worn over the penis during sex, but should be replaced with each new sexual activity. Most are made of latex, but if you have a latex allergy there are condoms made of polyurethane that are just as effective. Do not use flavored condoms for vaginal intercourse as they can cause vaginal infections.
  • Non-Hormonal/Copper Intrauterine Devices (IUDs)
    • ParaGard is the only non- hormonal IUD available in the United States. This IUD is a small “T” shaped device made of plastic and a small amount of copper that is inserted into the uterus by a health professional. The copper and shape of the IUD work to prevent pregnancy and is effective for up to 12 years. The copper IUD can also work as emergency contraception if it is inserted within 5 days of unprotected sex.
  • Spermicides
    • This method contains many different creams, films, foams, gels, and suppositories that contain chemicals that immobilize sperm. Spermicides should be inserted deep into the vagina to best prevent pregnancy. Some external condoms come with a spermicidal lubricant, but spermicide is easy to purchase and is fairly inexpensive.
  • Sponges
    • The contraceptive sponge is a small round piece of white plastic foam that is inserted into your vagina before sex. The sponge continuously releases spermicide and blocks your cervix from sperm trying to enter. Once the sponge is inserted, you can have sex as many times as you want within a 24 hour period, but the sponge must remain in for 6 hours after sex, but not for longer than 30 hours total.

Natural Methods

Natural methods of birth control do not involve any medications or devices to prevent pregnancy but rather rely on behavioral practices and familiarity with the menstrual cycle. These include withdrawal (“pulling out”), abstinence, and fertility awareness-based methods where you refrain from sexual activity during the ovulation window. While these methods are free and easy to hide, menstrual cycles can be unpredictable and it can be hard to stop ejaculation, so it would probably be best to use another form of birth control if you’re planning on having sex.

STI Prevention

To best prevent STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections), you should use condoms or dental dams (small latex squares placed over a flat surface) for every sexual activity involving genitals, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex. It’s important that you know your own STI status by being regularly tested, and having open and honest conversations with your partner. STI tests are low cost and are offered at many college health centers, family planning clinics, and doctor’s offices.

Condoms and dental dams can be purchased at grocery stores, pharmacies, and chain stores like CVS, Walgreens, and Target, but can also be found for free at many college health centers and family planning clinics. Make sure to read the instructions or look up how to properly use condoms and dental dams to ensure you are using them to correctly prevent STI transmission.

How to Pick a Birth Control Method

You should work with a health professional to decide what methods of birth control may be right for you and your sex life. Below are several helpful questions to consider when picking a method.

  • How easy is it to use and store? Can it be hidden?
  • Does it protect me from STIs?
  • How often do I need to replace or take it?
  • How much does it cost? Is it easy to get?
  • Does it eliminate or reduce my period? Are there any health benefits?

Additional Resources

Do you need more information on your contraceptive options? The Bedsider website provides detailed method comparisons. Just click on the image of the birth control you’d like to learn more about and read about its details including costs, how to use it, potential side effects, and other people’s real experiences on those methods. There is also an FAQ section that helps answer any questions you may have about methods or options based on your specific needs.


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