Contraception is one of the most interesting inventions of modern medicine. It gives women control over their bodies and allows people to decide when or whether they want to start a family. Birth control has other purposes too, with some methods helping protect against the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and others helping women to cope with heavy periods, cramping, or other menstrual difficulties.
There are many different kinds of birth control. Most of them are taken or used by the woman, however, there are some that are used by men. Some are “barrier methods” that prevent the sperm from reaching the egg, while others are medications which include hormones that can prevent a woman from becoming pregnant.
There are also emergency contraceptives that can be taken after intercourse. Emergency contraceptives are less effective than most other methods, however, so they should only be used as the last line of defense.1
Choosing a Contraceptive
There are currently 18 FDA-approved contraceptive methods, and they vary greatly in terms of their effectiveness and potential side effects, as well as convenience.2 Sterilization, for example, is more than 99 percent effective, but it is also permanent and there are risks of complications during the surgery. For this reason, sterilization is usually not recommended for men or women unless they have already had a child and are in a long-term, stable relationship.
Other contraceptives are reversible and are more suitable for those who are younger and may want to start a family later in life. These methods are outlined below.
Intrauterine Device (IUD)
There are two kinds of IUDs. The copper IUD lasts for up to 10 years and works by causing inflammation of the uterine lining, stopping the egg from implanting into the lining. IUDs are an “insert and forget” form of birth control, however, they can make period pains worse and cause spotting between periods. There is also a newer form of IUD that contains progestin, a hormone, which lasts from three to five years but has fewer side-effects.3
Contraceptive implants are another “insert and forget” procedure. The implant is inserted into the upper arm and lasts for three years. The implant contains hormones which help prevent pregnancy. The dose of the hormone is quite low, but it can still cause weight gain and menstrual changes, as well as mood swings, in some women. It is possible to remove the implant if the side effects are not tolerable.4
Some women opt for contraceptive injections instead of an implant. These injections were approved by the FDA for use in 1992 and remain popular today.5 The injections need to be done every three months, but once you have had the injection, you can forget about the contraceptive until the next time comes around.
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Injections can have similar side effects to implants, including headaches and menstrual changes. The good thing about injections is that once you have had one, you are “protected” until you need the next one, although they are slightly less effective than an implant.
The downside is that if you find the side-effects too much to bear, you can’t have the injection just taken out as you could with a patch or an IUD. Instead, you would have to stick it out until the injection wears off.
There are several different kinds of birth control pills including the combined pill, the progestin-only pill, and the extended combined pill. The pill is one of the more popular methods of contraception since it is quite flexible. Some women take the pill to help control period pains or to stop their period completely, even if they do not need the contraceptive effects at the time.
It is important that you see a doctor to get the pill and that you are prescribed the right type of pill for your needs. The pill is effective only if you take it in accordance with the recommendations, so there is the risk of pregnancy if you forget to take it, or take it and then promptly suffer from food poisoning and are ill before the pill is fully digested.
Oral contraceptives are a good choice if you want flexibility and are worried about side effects since you can stop taking the pill or change to another one if it disagrees with you, but they are not a good choice for someone who is forgetful or who might otherwise struggle to take the pill on time. Poor compliance is one of the main reasons that the pill has a higher failure rate than other methods.6
Condoms and Other Methods
Condoms, rings, and spermicidal sponges are also common contraceptive methods. The condom is the main method of birth control that will protect against STIs as well as pregnancy, but it must be used properly to offer that protection. If you put it on late, incorrectly, or it breaks, then you will not be protected.
Sponges and diaphragms also offer protection against some STIs.7 However, sponges and rings can cause irritation and have a high failure rate because it is easy to insert them incorrectly. Because of this, they are usually not recommended unless there is a reason that other more reliable methods cannot be used.
It is often recommended to use more than one of the alternative contraceptive methods. For example, combining a spermicide sponge with a condom.
Tracking Your Ovulation
Some women try to avoid pregnancy by tracking their monthly cycle and avoiding intercourse during the times that they are the most fertile. While there is indeed a rhythm to the monthly cycle, not all women can use this method. There are many factors that can interfere with the monthly cycle, and if your periods are not predictable to the day, then you run the risk of becoming pregnant if you use this method.8
You may ovulate earlier or later than expected, or sperm may live longer than you expect, so this kind of birth control is high-risk.
The birth controls methods outlined above are the most common ones available. The one that will work best for you is determined by your lifestyle, as well as whether you’re looking for hormonal or non-hormonal birth control. If you’re not sure what kind of birth control is best for you, then you should consult your doctor for advice.
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