Whether you’re considering birth control for the first time or are looking to change to an alternative form of contraception, there are many factors you need to take into account before making a final decision. To help, we give the lowdown on everything you need to know when choosing a form of contraception.
Always discuss your birth control needs and expectations with your GP or healthcare professional, so you can review all the options available and make an informed choice as to the very best contraception for you. Nowadays, you do not even have to visit the pharmacy to pick up your choice of birth control, if that is what is required, as specialists such as Express Pharmacy can deliver them straight to your door.
What is birth control?
Simply put, birth control, also known as contraception, helps to prevent pregnancy if you are sexually active and don’t want to have a baby. Contraception comes in two forms – either barrier or hormonal – with barrier methods such as condoms also able to protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Almost all contraceptives are up to 99% effective, as long as they are used correctly.
Different methods of birth control work in different ways and there’s no one contraceptive that’s perfect for everyone. In fact, the type of contraception that works best for you may change over time, depending on a range of factors, including age, lifestyle and medical history. And each type of contraception has its pros and cons, which is why it’s essential to talk to your healthcare provider when looking to switch birth control or considering using it for the first time.
Factors to consider
When choosing a new method of contraception, you will be asked to consider a number of things, including:
- Whether you want children and if so, how soon
- How often you have sex and how many partners you have
- Whether you also want protection against STDs
- The potential side effects of birth control
- Whether you can make contraception part of your daily routine or would prefer a form of birth control that you didn’t have to take each day
Any existing health conditions you may have will also be taken into account as well as whether you are a smoker or overweight.
The main types of contraception
Once you have worked through the above with your GP or sexual health professional, you will be able to consider the most appropriate form of contraception, for you, your health, preference and lifestyle. As a guide, the following are the main forms of contraception available today:
Hormonal contraceptives work by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg each month. They can also cause other changes in your body to make a pregnancy less likely, such as thickening the cervical mucus to prevent sperm getting through to the egg.
Hormonal contraceptives include:
- An intrauterine device (IUD) – sits inside the uterus and lasts 3-10 years
- Hormonal implant – placed under the skin and lasts up to 3 years
- Hormonal patch – needs to be replaced once a week
- Contraceptive injection – given every three months
- Birth control pills – taken daily
- Vaginal ring – needs replacing once a month
The above hormonal contraceptives do not protect against STDs but can be used in conjunction with a condom. Some hormonal methods also require more effort on your part, for example, remembering to take your birth control pill at the same time each day.
We take a quick look at the difference between short-acting and longer acting hormonal contraceptives.
- Short-acting hormonal methods – the birth control pill, the mini pill, the patch and the vaginal ring are all short-acting contraceptives and contain a hormone called progesterone which causes the cervical mucus to thicken, preventing sperm reaching the egg. Progesterone also thins the endometrial lining, so if a sperm does get through, the fertilized egg cannot attach to the uterus. With the exception of the mini-pill, most short-acting hormonal contraceptives also contain oestrogen, which prevents the ovaries from releasing eggs.
- Long-acting hormonal methods – long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) include hormone implants, hormone injections and IUDs which provide longer term birth control and will need to be removed or stopped if you’re planning a baby. Long-acting contraceptives offer high levels of protection that lasts between three months and 10 years, depending on the method you choose. LARCs contain progesterone to prevent a pregnancy while there’s also a copper IUD which prevents sperm reaching the egg.
As the name implies, barrier birth control physically blocks the sperm to prevent fertilisation. Barrier contraceptives include male and female condoms, diaphragms, sponges and cervical caps. With all these barrier methods, you need to remember to insert or in the case of male condoms, place it on the penis, every time you have sex. Barrier methods can also be used as a back-up for hormonal contraceptives, with condoms also effective in protecting against STDs.
Emergency contraception can help to prevent pregnancy should you have unprotected sex or your birth control has failed, for example you have forgotten to take your daily pill, or a condom splits during sex. To be used within three to five days of unprotected sex, there are two forms of emergency contraception – a copper IUD (which needs to be fitted by a doctor or nurse) and the emergency contraception pill. The emergency contraceptive pill includes Levonelle, which needs to be taken within three days and ellaOne, which can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex. However, the sooner you take emergency contraception, the more effective it will be.
The emergency contraceptive pill can be obtained from most pharmacies as well as your GP, local sexual health clinic or NHS walk in centre.