Contraception Demystified: Your Roadmap to Birth Control Choices
Choosing the Right Contraceptive Method for You
At its simplest definition, contraception is any method a person uses to prevent pregnancy. The reality tends to be more complex than that. Choosing the best birth control from all of the available options is based on each individual’s circumstances.
Understanding the Importance of Contraception
Contraception is an important consideration for every woman who is, or plans to become, sexually active. Birth control empowers women to manage their sexual health and family planning goals on their own terms.
Women who are educated about contraceptives and how they work can make fully informed decisions about the methods that are right for them. At our West Grove Women’s Health Center, we take that education seriously. We are here to answer every question and help women determine their contraception-related priorities.
Contraception, used in the right way, is an effective tool in preventing pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Each method comes with various benefits and drawbacks. This guide will provide an extensive overview of contraceptives for education purposes. Women are encouraged to make an appointment with our health center to address their specific needs.
An Overview of Contraceptive Options
There are many types of birth control available today. The best method for any one person depends on their short-term and long-term goals for preventing pregnancy and their health priorities.
Hormonal Birth Control Methods
Hormonal birth control delivers either a combination of estrogen and progestin or progestin only into the bloodstream to prevent pregnancy. The hormones are delivered based on the method:
- Oral contraceptives, contraceptive ring, and the patch – these methods are user-controlled. Women will take the pill, insert the ring, or apply a patch on a set schedule to deliver continuous hormones during their menstrual cycle before taking a week off to have their period.
- Implant and injected hormones – a doctor must deliver these methods. The implant lasts up to 3 years, and the shot must be administered every 3 months.
Intrauterine Birth Control Devices
Intrauterine devices (IUDs) are placed inside the uterus by a healthcare provider and remain there up to 10 years depending on the type. Some types of IUD deliver hormones, but some do not and work instead by preventing sperm from reaching an egg. If pregnancy is desired, the IUD can be removed by a healthcare provider.
Barrier Birth Control Methods
Barrier method types of birth control prevent sperm from entering the cervix to reach an egg. This type of birth control does not contain hormones and must be used with each instance of sexual intercourse. Barrier methods often work best in conjunction with a spermicide (solution that kills sperm on contact) and include:
- Male condoms
- Female condoms
- Diaphragm or cervical cap
Natural Methods of Contraception
Natural family planning (NFP) is the process of tracking fertility within a menstrual cycle. Using NFP, a woman will know which days she is ovulating and most likely to get pregnant during the month. If she wants to prevent pregnancy, she will need to abstain from sex or use an alternate method of birth control on those days. Women who have delivered a baby in the past 6 months, are actively breastfeeding, and are not getting a monthly period are also in a natural state of infertility. However, this is not a reliable method of contraception, as a woman will ovulate a few weeks before her period returns, making pregnancy possible.
If birth control failure is expected, or unprotected sex took place, emergency contraception is available to prevent pregnancy. Emergency contraception pills must be taken within 5 days of unprotected sex. Alternatively, a Copper IUD can be placed within 5 days to prevent pregnancy. The IUD is intended to prevent an immediate pregnancy and remain in place for long-term prevention.
Permanent Birth Control
Permanent methods of birth control end fertility for men or women. For men, this is called a vasectomy. The tiny tubes that carry sperm out of the testes are snipped, and usually closed, in an outpatient procedure. For women, this is called tubal ligation (getting your tubes tied), and it closes off the fallopian tubes so that eggs can no longer reach the uterus. This is also an outpatient procedure, but it is more intensive than a vasectomy. While both methods are technically reversible, they are not intended to be. One should only pursue permanent contraception if they know they are done having children.
Effectiveness of Contraceptive Methods
Generally speaking, the less room for user error each form of birth control has, the more effective it is. Methods that are long-lasting and placed by a medical professional are the most effective. Methods that rely on the user to remember a routine or apply before sex are less likely to prevent pregnancy. However, when used correctly, user-controlled birth control methods are very effective.
When considering how effective is birth control, we measure by failure rate. Failure means that despite using the birth control method as directed, pregnancy still occurs. IUDs and hormonal implants are extremely effective with a less than one percent failure rate. Hormonal shots, birth control pills, patches, and contraceptive rings all have a less than 10 percent failure rate with correct use.
Barrier methods have between a 10 and 30 percent failure rate. We can’t know for certain if these methods were being used correctly, so we have to base failure rates on what the users report. Natural method effectiveness is also difficult to gauge, since it depends on how closely an individual woman tracks her fertility.
Contraceptive effectiveness is dependent on it being used correctly. Perfect use is hard to achieve outside of permanent methods, but it means that the method is used without any possible errors. Typical use accepts that humans have room for error, so the measurement is based on the average person using the method as intended. Failure rates are based on typical use, meaning that even with the best practices, some human error can be expected.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Method
The advantages and disadvantages of each method are subjective. Each person has different priorities and views about forms of birth control, so they need to weigh all the evidence for themselves. The following considerations may be a factor in determining the best birth control, but whether they are positives or negatives is up to each individual.
Hormonal birth control methods are very effective at preventing pregnancy, but they do involve altering the body’s natural hormones. This comes with side effects that vary from person to person. Some women use birth control to find relief from hormonal or gynecological issues unrelated to pregnancy. Other women may have adverse side effects that reduce the desirability of hormonal contraceptives.
Convenience means something different to everyone. For some, the long-lasting effects of IUDs, implants, or shots are convenient. For others, the routine of pills, patches, or natural methods is convenient. Still for others, only having to think about contraception when it’s actually needed is the most convenient approach. For people who are definitely ready for the end of fertility, a permanent procedure is certainly convenient post-recovery. It all depends on what makes the most sense based on a woman’s own habits and personality.
The cost of birth control is always something to consider:
- Insurance coverage – some methods are covered under health insurance plans, but there may be limits to brands and types.
- Reduced cost – birth control can be available at a reduced cost at health centers depending on the type and the individual’s ability to pay.
- One-time fee – permanent contraceptive methods involve the cost of a single procedure, which may be partially covered by insurance. IUDs and implants can also be considered one-time costs since they each last several years.
- Free – natural family planning is free, other than the low cost of tracking materials like a thermometer and calendar. Condoms can also be obtained for free from various community resources.
- Retail – most barrier methods can be purchased at a low cost from pharmacies and other stores.
Advantages and disadvantages of birth control are reviewed during contraception counseling at the West Grove Women’s Health Center. Our team helps women review each factor to make the most informed decision.
Addressing Common Concerns and Misconceptions
Most people talk to their friends, family, or strangers on the internet about contraception before they get in touch with a healthcare provider. While this crowdsourcing may be a good start, it also often leads to more questions, concerns, and even misconceptions about birth control.
Because every situation is different, the best way to make a fully informed decision about contraceptives is to speak with a qualified healthcare professional. This is not to say that people outside the medical office are always wrong, just that they might only know what’s best for their own circumstances.
Part of contraception counseling involves making sure women understand their own menstrual cycle, fertility patterns, and basic reproduction. Then we factor in health history, specific family planning desires and goals, personal habits, sexual health goals or needs, and any reasons why certain types of contraceptives are off the table.
Tips for Talking to Healthcare Providers
Healthcare providers, especially those who focus on women’s health, are very mindful about creating a comfortable space for women to learn about birth control options. Family planning is something every woman should be empowered to determine for herself. That requires a good understanding of how each form of birth control works and an opportunity to think through every choice.
Women who have never used any contraception, who don’t understand their current method of birth control, who are having side effects, or who simply want to be better informed, should see a qualified women’s healthcare professional. It is important to work with a provider who is patient, informative, non-judgmental, and supportive of individual choices.
Making Informed Decisions About Your Sexual Health
Family planning and contraception are very important topics for each woman to consider. As this guide has shown by only covering the basics, there are many options and many individualized reasons for choosing or refusing any given one.
Women who are, or plan to be, sexually active are encouraged to think about their personal priorities for preventing pregnancy. They should also jot down their personal preferences, health concerns, and a lifestyle overview before they make an appointment with a women’s healthcare provider. This makes it easier to evaluate each type of birth control as it is presented.
The West Grove Women’s Health Center providers partner with women every day to explore family planning. Our team provides compassionate care to each woman in whatever plans she has for planning or preventing pregnancy. We provide thorough counseling, and we sit with each patient until every question has been answered. We also prescribe birth control and insert IUDs.