Patient Education

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Women's Health

June 2013

Considering Birth Control? Know Your Options

Women today have more birth control options than ever before. The condom, the pill, the patch-to name just a few. In fact, more than three-quarters of sexually active women in the U.S. have tried at least three different methods of contraception. Knowing more about your options can help you choose the best one for you.

Close-up of oral contraceptive pills

Contraceptive changes over time

In a recent government survey, researchers asked more than 12,000 women about their birth control use. They then compared the responses to a similar 1995 survey. Overall, 62 percent of participants between ages 15 and 44 reported that they currently used some form of contraception.

The pill remains a popular choice, especially among women younger than 24. Other notable findings: Fewer women are relying on the condom. More women are choosing intrauterine devices (IUDs). And sterilization is still a top choice for older women and those who already have children.

Types of birth control

Birth control options can be divided into four categories, based on how they prevent pregnancy. Below is a breakdown to help you better understand your choices.

Barrier methods. These work by creating a barrier between a woman's eggs and a man's sperm. A common choice is the condom. Other options include a diaphragm, cervical cap, contraceptive sponge, and spermicides. In general, barrier methods are less reliable in stopping pregnancy. But they may be a good choice for women who can't use hormones.

Hormonal methods. These use the hormones estrogen, progestin, or both to stop ovulation or fertilization. Methods include the pill, the patch, and the vaginal ring. Women may also receive a hormonal injection called Depo-Provera. When used consistently and correctly, hormonal methods can be very effective. But some women experience side effects, such as bleeding between periods, headaches, and nausea.

Implanted devices. Perhaps the most well-known is the IUD, a T-shaped copper wire placed in the uterus to prevent fertilization. Another kind is a matchstick-sized rod inserted into the arm. It gradually releases progestin into the body. Lasting at least five years, these small devices are quite effective.

Sterilization. For women who want to permanently prevent pregnancy, sterilization is the answer. It includes cutting or tying off the fallopian tubes to stop fertilization. A small, flexible insert may also be placed in the tubes. Important to note: This method is not reversible.

When choosing a birth control method, talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of all available options. And be sure to ask how well they typically work. Research has found that many women overestimate the effectiveness of their contraceptive choice.

What About Emergency Contraception?

Emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) contain high levels of hormones that stop pregnancy. Brands such as Plan B One-Step and Next Choice are available over the counter. ECPs can be used within 72 hours after you have had unprotected sex or after your current birth control method fails. For instance, the condom broke or you missed two or more doses of your birth control pill. ECPs should not be used as a regular method of contraception.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

How much do you know about contraception? Take this quiz.

Online Resources

Department of Health and Human Services - Birth Control Methods

FDA - Birth Control Guide


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