Birth Control: What Type Is Right for You?

You have a lot of choices for birth control, from condoms to caps to pills. Find one that you're confident with -- and that you can commit to using every time you have sex.

Hormonal Birth Control

These include birth control pills, stick-on patches, insertable vaginal rings, shots, and implants. You’ll need a prescription for them.

They use hormones, similar to the ones in your body, to stop the release of an egg so that it can't get fertilized by sperm.

How well it works depends on how well you use it. Most people don’t use any method perfectly, all the time. Things happen!

With typical use, hormonal birth control is about 90% effective. But if used correctly all the time, it prevents pregnancy over 99% of the time. The implant is also about 99% effective.

If you decide to take a birth control pill, ask your doctor how long you should use another form of birth control until the pill takes effect.

Barrier Birth Control

As the name suggests, these create a barrier to keep sperm from reaching an egg. You can get most of them at a pharmacy with no prescription.

Male condomsare reliable and cheap. Latex condoms are a good choice. They're durable and may be more effective against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) than “natural” or “lambskin” condoms.

With typical use, the male condom is about 80% effective. If used perfectly every time, it prevents pregnancy 98% of the time.

A female condom is a thin, flexible, plastic tube that you would partially insert into your vagina, creating a barrier. Female condoms may also help against STDs. Female condoms are about 80% effective.

Other types of birth control work well in preventing pregnancy, but they don't protect you from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The sponge is another non-prescription option. It's a small piece of foam, treated with spermicide, that you place high up in your vagina. It's between 68% and 84% effective. You can also use spermicides -- gels, creams, and foams -- with other birth control or on their own. Alone, they're about 70% effective.

A few options -- like the diaphragm, cervical cap, and cervical shield -- are available only by prescription. They're rubber or silicone barriers that you place far up in your vagina. They're about 90% effective in preventing pregnancy.

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IUDs (Intrauterine Devices)

These are small, plastic devices that a doctor or nurse will insert into your uterus. The procedure is simple and quick, although a little uncomfortable. Once it's in position, the IUD will protect you from pregnancy for a long time.

IUDs that use hormones are good for 5 years. The copper-T version -- which uses copper, a natural sperm-killer -- is good for up to 10 years. IUDs are about 99% effective in preventing pregnancy.

Emergency Contraception

You shouldn’t consider this a form of regular birth control. It’s for use after unprotected sex or if your condom breaks. It can prevent pregnancy up to 3 to 5 days later, although the sooner you take it, the better.

Most emergency contraception products are so-called "morning after" pills, but the copper-T IUD works as emergency contraception, too. Women who weigh 165 pounds or more and want emergency contraception should use the IUD, since research shows that the pills start to lose effectiveness for them.

9 Tips for Using Birth Control

You’ll want to do these things so your birth control works:

1. Be prepared. It needs to be easy for you to use.

2. Check expiration dates. Condoms and other latex or plastic types of birth control can break down over time. Pills become less effective. Don’t rely on birth control that's past its expiration date.

3. Store it right. Light and heat can damage condoms and other forms of birth control. Never use a condom that's been in a car's glove compartment for a while or crammed in a wallet.

4. Follow directions. In the heat of the moment, you’re not going to stop to read the instructions in the box. So read up in advance.

5. Be careful when opening the condom wrapper. Don't risk tearing the condom by opening it with scissors or your teeth. They can rip or tear.

6. Use the right size. A condom that's too small or big may not work.

7. Put condoms on correctly. Make sure you unroll it in the right direction. As you put it on, hold the tip to prevent an air bubble from forming. Air can make a break more likely.

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8. Use lubrication. It lowers the risk of condom tears. Only use water-based lubricants. Don't use any that are oil-based, like baby oil or petroleum jelly. They can break down the condom. For better protection, use a lubricant with spermicide.

9. Have emergency contraception on hand. Even if you're careful, things happen. If a condom breaks, you may want to use emergency birth control just in case.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on August 19, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Birth Control Pills.”

CDC: "Contraception."

Kelly Cleland, MPA, MPH, researcher, Office of Population Research, Princeton University.

KidsHealth: "How Can Condoms Break?" "How Can You Tell if a Condom Has Expired?" and "What if a Condom Breaks?"

UpToDate: "Intrauterine Devices (IUDs)."

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "Tips for Using Condoms and Dental Dams."

Women'sHealth.gov: "Birth Control Methods Fact Sheet."

Healthy Canadians web site.

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