Overview on Birth Control

You’re probably somewhat familiar with common forms of birth control: “The pill” and condoms are widely discussed and used, while newer contraceptive methods are increasingly popular. Still, for the average sexually active person seeking to prevent pregnancy, evaluating birth control options can feel a bit overwhelming. 

After all, there are lots of alternatives to consider. While condoms and oral contraceptives are quite common, many people choose intrauterine devices (IUDs), natural planning, or surgical solutions to keep from getting pregnant. (Learn More: Types of Birth Control)

In most cases, both partners have options: While most birth control medications are tailored to women, many methods are also available to men. (Learn More: Can Men Take Birth Control?

Additionally, there are medical implications to consider. For example, some women may receive birth control pills as a treatment for certain health conditions. These pills come with potential benefits as well as possible side effects, and it’s important to evaluate both. (Learn More: Side Effects) 

In this article, we’ll describe the major categories of birth control available, helping you make informed decisions about preventing pregnancy. 

Before Choosing Birth Control

While some birth control methods require a prescription or medical procedure, many do not. Accordingly, you may be in a position to make birth control decisions without the guidance of a doctor. When considering various contraceptive methods that don’t demand a prescription, there are several variables to take into account.

  • Whether or not you would like to have children in the future 
  • How often you engage in intercourse
  • The number of sexual partners you have
  • Your medical history

As we discuss the various forms of over-the-counter birth control below, you’ll learn how these factors might inform your contraceptive choices. (Learn More: Types of Birth Control)

If you do speak to a medical professional about your birth control options, your provider will probably require some basic health information before making any recommendations. Your doctor will likely consider the following factors when suggesting or prescribing birth control:

  • Whether or not you smoke
  • If you or someone in your family has a history of blood clots
  • Current antibiotics, prescription medication, or herbal supplements you might be taking
  • Whether you have recently been pregnant or are breastfeeding

Types of Birth Control

While the phrase “birth control” is often associated with “the pill” specifically, the term actually refers to a wide array of methods for preventing pregnancy. Some of these methods are over-the-counter (OTC) solutions, available in most pharmacies. Others are available by prescription only, and therefore require a doctor’s expertise. Still others involve surgical procedures, providing a more permanent contraceptive solution.

Here are the primary forms of birth control available to the American public, categorized by the way in which they prevent conception. 

  • Barrier methods: In basic terms, these methods prevent contact between the female partner’s egg and the male partner’s sperm, therefore avoiding fertilization. Barrier methods include:

    • Male and/or female condom (OTC). These are thin films that are placed over an erect penis (male condom) or inserted into the vagina before intercourse (female condom). They can be used on their own or as a supplement to other forms of birth control, such as the pill or an IUD (intrauterine device).
    • Spermicide (OTC). Available as a gel, tablet, film, or foam, spermicide must inserted into the vagina 5 to 90 minutes before sex. It must remain for there six to eight hours after sex, and it provides better protection when used along with a condom, diaphragm or cervical cap (more on these options below). When using spermicide in any form, be sure to precisely follow any and all instructions provided by the manufacturer. In some cases, spermicide may irritate the rectum or vagina. This irritation may increase the likelihood of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
    • Diaphragm and spermicide (prescription). A diaphragm is a flexible, dome-shaped contraceptive device. It is inserted into the vagina, and, in conjunction with a spermicidal gel, prevents the sperm from fertilizing the egg. It must remain in the vagina up to six hours after intercourse and can remain inside for up to 24 hours. To effectively prevent pregnancy, you must apply more spermicidal gel each time you use the diaphragm during intercourse.
    • Cervical cap and spermicide (prescription). Like the diaphragm, this cap is inserted into the vagina before sex and must be coated with spermicide to work properly. It must also stay in the vagina for up to six hours after sex, but it can remain in the vagina for up to 48 hours.
    • Sponge and spermicide (OTC). This is a sponge shaped like a disk, used along with spermicide and inserted into the vagina before sex. It should remain in the body about six hours after sex and be removed 24 to 30 hours after intercourse. Sponges are discarded after a single use.
  • Hormonal birth control: Typically, this form of birth control affects ovulation by changing when an egg is developed and released during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Alternative forms of hormonal birth control change the consistency of cervical mucus so it is harder for the sperm to travel and fertilize the egg.

    In the United States, you must get a prescription for birth control pills and injections. Hormonal birth control can be administered in several distinct formulations:
    • Birth control pills. Most birth control medications are designed to be taken orally on a daily basis. Accordingly, most brands provide a pack of pills designed to last for a four week period, including a set of “placebo” pills intended to mimic a woman’s menstrual cycle. Most packs contain 21 pills with hormones and seven placebo pills. In some cases, however, packs include 24 hormone pills and four placebo pills.

      • Combination pills: These contain both estrogen and progestin, and they are available in several different formats. Brand names include Yaz, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Seasonique, Alesse, Aranelle, and Kariva, among others.
        • Extended cycle pills: Women who take these have an average of four periods annually. A prescription usually contains 84 pills with the active ingredient and seven placebo pills.
        • Low-dose pills: You might take these if it is your first time taking birth control or if you do not react well to hormones. They have 50 micrograms of estrogen per pill.
        • Multiphasic pills: The medications provide a varying amount of active hormones in each pill. The hormone content varies depending on when in your cycle you take a given pill.
        • Monophasic pills: These pills provide a consistent level (amount) of hormones that stays the same throughout your cycle. 
      • Progestin-only pills: These are birth control pills that only contain a hormone called progestin. Also called “mini-pills,” they represent a viable option for women who do not react well to estrogen. They also contain a smaller dose of progestin than what is found in a combination pill.

        Progestin-only pills are sold under the brand names Errin, Camila, Heather, Jolivette, and Jencycla.
    • Injections. Some women elect to receive a shot every three months containing Depo-Provera (Progestin). These injections function in a manner similar to birth control pills, but contain enough hormones to last for several months.
  • Intrauterine devices (IUDs): IUDs are small mechanisms inserted into the uterus that prevent pregnancy by making it harder for sperm to reach the fallopian tubes. They also change the environment in the cervix and uterus to reduce the likelihood of fertilization. You need a prescription to get an IUD in the United States

Some IUDs are hormonal, such as Mirena, Kyleen, and Skyla. Others are made of copper, such as Paragard.

  • Sterilization: Surgical methods can prevent a man from impregnating a woman or prevent a woman from becoming pregnant. These procedures are more permanent options for partners and individuals who wish to prevent pregnancy for the foreseeable future.
  • For men: A vasectomy requires only local anesthesia and takes 10 to 30 minutes. Men who undergo this procedure remain awake throughout the process but do not feel pain from the incision. The tubes that transport semen are cut and sealed to prevent the ejaculation of fertile sperm moving forward

It is possible to reverse the procedure, but it is best to have a vasectomy only when the patient is sure he no longer wishes to have children.

  • For women: Women who have tubal ligation often refer to it as “getting my tubes tied.” Patients typically receive local or total anesthesia, experiencing no pain during the surgery. Women who undergo this surgery often go home the same day the procedure is performed.

    During a tubal ligation, the fallopian tubes are cut or blocked, preventing pregnancy. Though it is considered a permanent form of sterilization, an estimated 50 to 80 percent of women are able to become pregnant after a reversal of the procedure.
  • Natural planning: Family planning methods can help to prevent pregnancy. This involves timing intercourse around one’s menstrual cycle and avoiding sex during potential ovulation windows.
  • Emergency contraception: The “morning after pill” or “Plan B” can be purchased without a prescription as a fail-safe if another form of birth control fails. Take Action, AfterPill, and My Way are generic forms of Plan B. Only one brand, Ella, requires a prescription

In all cases, it is important to follow directions from your doctor about your chosen or prescribed birth control method. Additionally, it is essential to note that pregnancy is still possible when taking birth control. Furthermore, while condoms can protect against some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), many forms of birth control (such as IUDs and hormonal medication) do not. 

Side Effects 

Virtually all forms of birth control possess potential side effects, and you may wish to discuss them with your doctor in greater detail. Here are some major side effects to be aware of for common kinds of birth control. 

  • Condoms: It is possible to be allergic to condoms made of latex. This may cause itching or burning sensations, hives, or a rash in the genital area.

    If you are allergic to latex, condoms made of polyurethane, lambskin, or polyisoprene may help while offering protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
  • Hormonal treatments: Potential side effects include vaginal discharge, mood changes, nausea, changes to the libido, spotting between periods, tender breasts, and weight gain. Blood clots are a rare and more serious side effect.

    Birth control pills may not be as effective in women over the age of 40.
  • Sterilization surgeries: These procedures may cause pain in the surgical area and cramps once the operation is complete. Infection is a possibility. 

Informed and In Control

While we’re provided a brief overview of common birth control methods, the information we’ve shared is no substitute for the guidance of a trained medical professional. We highly recommend consulting your physician or another healthcare provider as you evaluate your options. Additionally, if costs pose a barrier to obtaining your preferred method of birth control, consider our discounts and coupons. We may be able to help you afford the kind of contraception that works best for your body.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to choose birth control?

No single treatment is best for everyone. You may have to try a few options to find the best method for you.

Talk to your doctor about the best way to prevent pregnancy. Your doctor will ask about your health and take various factors into consideration, such as your medical history, sexual history, and the number of sexual partners you have at the moment.

Are there any permanent forms of birth control?

Known as sterilization, both men and women can choose permanent options to prevent pregnancy. 

What are the most common side effects of birth control?

Condoms and spermicides are known to cause allergies in some people.

Hormonal birth control, such as birth control pills and certain IUDs, can cause changes in mood, weight, and libido. Not all women will be able to tolerate the effects of estrogen or progestin well. It is common to try different types of birth control pills before finding the one that works best for you. 

For sterilization, such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, pain, cramps, and infection are potential risks after surgery. 

Can men also use birth control?

Men can use condoms or have a vasectomy. Research is ongoing into hormonal forms of male birth control.

References

Contraception. (December 2018). Centers for Disease Control

Birth Control. (March 2018). Food and Drug Administration. 

Birth Control. (January 2017). MedlinePlus. 

Birth Control. (February 2018). Mayo Clinic. 

The 3 Most Promising Forms of Male Birth Control, Explained. (April 2019). Vox

10 Most Common Birth Control Pill Side Effects. (January 2018). Medical News Today.

Estrogen and Progestin Oral Contraceptives (Oral Route). (February 2019). Mayo Clinic.

Sex After 40: Choosing the Right Contraceptive. (March 2013). Healthline.

An Overview of Birth Control. (August 2019). Verywell Health.

How Plan B Works Before and After Ovulation. (August 2019). Verywell Health.

About Contraception and Birth Control. (January 2017). National Institutes of Health.  

What to Know about the Last Week of Birth Control Pills. (September 2018). Medical News Today.

Choosing the Right Birth Control Pill. (March 2016). Healthline. 

Vasectomy. (February 2019). Mayo Clinic. 

Tubal Ligation (2019) Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

Am I Allergic to Condoms? (February 2018). Healthline.