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What is contraception?

Birth control is a regimen of one or more actions, devices, sexual practices, or medications followed in order to deliberately prevent or reduce the likelihood of pregnancy or childbirth. There are many ways to prevent pregnancy when you are having sexual intercourse. They include the use of hormonal medication, contraceptive devices (barriers and IUDs), periods of avoiding sex, spermicides, and surgery for sterilization.

Some birth control methods work better than others. What follows is basic information on these different methods. This can help you make an informed decision regarding which method may be right for you and your lifestyle.

Remember, you need to consider whether the method you choose will also protect you from getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Sometimes you may need to use more than one method to prevent pregnancy AND infection. The latex or polyurethane male condom and female condom are the best protection currently available against STDs. They are the only birth control methods that will reduce your risk of being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Hormones, natural family planning, and IUD's do not give any protection against infection.

What are the different methods of contraception?

Hormonal medication

Birth control pills (also called oral contraceptives), injections, vaginal rings, skin patches, and implants contain manufactured forms of the hormones estrogen and/or progesterone. The hormones stop a woman's ovaries from releasing an egg each month. They also have some effects on the uterus and cervix that make it harder for sperm to enter the uterus and prevent fertilization.

  • A woman takes birth control pills according to a daily schedule prescribed by her healthcare provider.
  • The Depo-Provera shot, which contains progesterone, is given every 3 months to prevent pregnancy during that time.
  • Vaginal rings are flexible rings that are inserted into the vagina for 3 weeks. They are then removed for 1 week, and then replaced with a new ring for another 3 weeks. The ring releases hormones into your body.
  • Patches containing hormones are put on the skin. Each patch is worn for 1 week then thrown away. This is repeated 2 more times with 2 more patches. Then no patch is worn for 1 week.
  • The Nexplanon implant is a small rod containing progesterone that is placed under the skin of a woman's arm. Nexplanon prevents pregnancy for up to 3 years, the length of time recommended for leaving the implant in place.

You will need to schedule an appointment to see your healthcare provider to discuss and obtain a prescription for the birth control. Most contraceptive devices form physical or chemical barriers that prevent fertilization.

Condoms, spermicides and sponges

The male condom is a tube of thin material (latex rubber or polyurethane is best). It is rolled over the erect penis just before any contact of the penis with a woman's genitals. The male condom provides the best protection against STDs, including HIV and hepatitis B.

The female condom is a 7-inch long pouch of polyurethane with two flexible rings. It is inserted into the vagina before sex. It covers the cervix, vagina, and the area around the vagina. The female condom also provides protection against some STDs, including HIV and hepatitis B.

Spermicides are sperm-killing chemicals. They are available as foam, jelly, foaming tablets, vaginal suppositories, or cream. They are inserted into the vagina no longer than 30 minutes before sex. Spermicides should NOT be used alone. They should be used with another form of birth control, such as a condom, for increased effectiveness. Spermicides do not protect against STDs.

The sponge is a round, soft sponge of polyurethane foam. It is soaked with a spermicide. No more than 24 hours before intercourse, the sponge is dampened and then inserted into the vagina against the cervix.

You can buy condoms, spermicides, and sponges at drug and grocery stores without a prescription.

Diaphragm and cervical cap

The diaphragm is a soft rubber dome stretched over a flexible ring. No more than six hours before sex, you fill the diaphragm with a spermicidal jelly or cream and insert into the vagina.

The cervical cap is made of latex rubber or plastic and is shaped like a cup. It is smaller and more rigid than a diaphragm. No more than 24 hours before sex, the cap is filled with a spermicidal jelly or cream and inserted into the vagina and over the cervix.

The diaphragm and cervical cap require a fitting by your healthcare provider.

IUD's (intrauterine devices)

The intrauterine device (IUD) is a small plastic device containing copper or hormones. Instead of stopping sperm from entering the uterus, the IUD changes the physical environment of the reproductive tract. This change prevents the egg from being fertilized. An IUD is inserted into the uterus by your healthcare provider.

The ParaGard IUD is a copper releasing device that is placed in your uterus to prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years. ParaGard is made of white plastic in the shape of a "T". Copper is wrapped around the stem and the arms of the "T". Two white threads are attached to the stem of the "T". These threads are the only part of the IUD that you can feel when ParaGard is in your uterus.

The Mirena IUD, a levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine device, is an intrauterine contraceptive that delivers small amounts of hormone directly to the uterus. The Mirena IUD is made of soft, flexible plastic, and is also put in place by your healthcare provider during an office visit. The Mirena lasts up to five years, and is also approved to treat heavy periods in women who choose intrauterine contraception.

If you choose to use an IUD, you will need to see your healthcare provider for insertion and removal of the IUD.

Family planning

The natural family planning methods of birth control do not depend on any devices or drugs. To prevent pregnancy you cannot have sex for a short period of time during each menstrual cycle.

To know when it is safest to have sex, a woman must record her body temperature and changes in cervical mucus every day. For most people, other methods of birth control are more reliable.


Sterilization is the permanent closing of the tubes that normally carry the sperm or eggs with surgery or special devices. A woman or man who has these procedures will no longer be able to conceive children.

When a woman is sterilized, her fallopian tubes, which carry the eggs from the ovaries to the uterus, are sealed off. The surgical procedure is called tubal ligation.

Essure is a newer alternative to ligation, which uses hysteroscopy rather than surgery. It involves blocking the tubes by placing tiny devices into them. (Other methods of birth control must be used for three months after the devices are placed in the tubes).

In a vasectomy, a surgeon cuts and seals off the tubes that carry sperm in a man.

These procedures are usually permanent methods of birth control. They can sometimes be reversed to restore the ability to conceive, but the reversal procedures are costly and not always successful. In women, the risk of ectopic (tubal) pregnancy is increased.

Hysterectomy is another permanent method of sterilization procedure in which the uterus is removed. The uterus is the muscular organ at the top of the vagina. Babies develop in the uterus, and menstrual blood comes from the uterus. Other female organs, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes may also be removed when the uterus is removed. Hysterectomy is usually only done if there are other problems with the female organs, such as fibroids, or abnormal menstrual bleeding.

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