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Patient information: Birth control; which method is right for me? (Beyond the Basics)

INTRODUCTION

There are a number of methods available to help prevent pregnancy, with some of the most popular including condoms and birth control pills. Deciding which method is right can be tough because there are many issues to consider, including costs, future pregnancy plans, side effects, and others.

This article reviews all methods of birth control. More detailed discussions of hormonal, long-term, and barrier birth control methods are available separately. (See "Patient information: Long-term methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Barrier methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

EFFECTIVENESS OF BIRTH CONTROL

Most birth control methods are quite effective if used properly (table 1). However, contraceptives can fail for a number of reasons, including incorrect use and failure of the medication, device, or method itself.

Certain birth control methods, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and injectable or implanted methods, have a low risk of failure (pregnancy). This is because they are the easiest to use properly. You should consider these methods if you want the lowest chance of a mistake or failure, which could lead to pregnancy. (See "Patient information: Long-term methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

Overall, birth control methods that are designed for use at or near the time of sex (eg, the condom, diaphragm) are generally less effective than other birth control methods (eg, IUD, birth control pill).

If you forget to use birth control or if your method fails, there is an option to reduce your risk of becoming pregnant for up to 5 days after you have sex. This is called the morning after pill, or emergency contraception. (See "Patient information: Emergency contraception (morning after pill) (Beyond the Basics)".)

CHOOSING A BIRTH CONTROL METHOD

It can be difficult to decide which birth control method is best because of the wide variety of options available. The best method is one that you will use consistently, is acceptable to you and your partner, and does not cause bothersome side effects. Other factors to consider include:

How effective is the method?

Is it convenient? Will I remember to use it?

Do I have to use/take it every day?

Is this method reversible? Can I get pregnant immediately after stopping it?

Will this method cause me to bleed more or less?

Are there side effects or potential complications?

Is this method affordable?

Does this method protect against sexually transmitted diseases?

No method of birth control is perfect. You must balance the advantages and disadvantages of each method and then choose the method that you will be able to use consistently and correctly.

EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION

Emergency contraception, sometimes called the morning after pill, refers to the use of medication after unintended intercourse to prevent pregnancy. You can use the morning after pill if you forget to take your birth control pill, if a condom breaks during sex, or if you have unprotected sex for other reasons (including victims of sexual assault). Morning after pills may be hormonal (eg, PlanB One-Step) or nonhormonal (eg, Ella). An IUD can also be inserted for use as emergency contraception, and is more effective at preventing a pregnancy than pills. Detailed information on emergency contraception is available separately. (See "Patient information: Emergency contraception (morning after pill) (Beyond the Basics)".)

BIRTH CONTROL PILLS

Most birth control pills, also referred to as "the pill," contain a combination of two female hormones. A full discussion of birth control pills is available separately. (See "Patient information: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

How well do they work? — When taken properly, birth control pills are very effective. In general, if you miss one pill, you should take it as soon as possible, If you miss two or more pills, continue to take one pill per day and use a back-up method of birth control (eg, a condom) for seven days. If you miss two or more pills, you should also consider taking the morning after (emergency contraception) pill. (See "Patient information: Emergency contraception (morning after pill) (Beyond the Basics)".)

Side effects — Side effects of the pill include:

Nausea, breast tenderness, bloating, and mood changes, which typically improve after two to three months.

Irregular vaginal spotting or bleeding. This is particularly common during the first few months. Forgetting a pill can also cause irregular bleeding.

Progestin-only pills — Unlike traditional birth control pills, the progestin-only pill, also called the mini pill, does not contain estrogen. It does contain progestin, a hormone that is similar to the female hormone, progesterone. This type of pill is useful for women who cannot or should not take estrogen.

Progestin-only pills are as effective as combination pills if they are taken at the same time every day. However, the progestin-only pill becomes less effective if you are more than three hours late in taking it, in which case, emergency contraceptives may be considered.

INJECTABLE BIRTH CONTROL

The only injectable method of birth control currently available in the United States is medroxyprogesterone acetate or DMPA (Depo-Provera). This is a progestin hormone, which is long-lasting. DMPA is injected deep into a muscle, such as the buttock or upper arm, once every three months. A version that is given under the skin is also available.

DMPA is very effective, with a failure (pregnancy) rate of less than one percent. A full discussion is available separately. (See "Patient information: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

Side effects — The most common side effects of DMPA are irregular or prolonged vaginal bleeding and spotting, particularly during the first three to six months. Up to 50 percent of women completely stop having menstrual periods after using DMPA for one year. Menstrual periods generally return within six months of the last DMPA injection.

SKIN PATCHES

Birth control skin patches contain two hormones, estrogen and progestin, similar to birth control pills. The patch is as effective as birth control pills, and may be preferred by some women because you do not have to take it every day.

Ortho Evra is the only skin patch birth control available in the United States. You wear the patch for one week on the upper arm, shoulder, upper back, or hip. After one week, you remove the old patch and apply a new patch; you repeat this for three weeks. During the fourth week, you do not wear a patch and your menstrual period occurs during this week.

The risks and side effects of the patch are similar to those of a birth control pill, although there may be a slightly higher risk of developing a blood clot.

VAGINAL RING

A flexible plastic vaginal ring (Nuvaring) contains estrogen and a progestin. You wear the ring in the vagina, where there hormones are slowly absorbed into the body. This prevents pregnancy, similar to a birth control pill. You wear the ring inside the vagina for three weeks, followed by one week when you do not wear the ring; your menstrual period occurs during the fourth week.

The ring is not noticeable, and it is easy for most women to insert and remove. You may take the ring out of the vagina for up to three hours if desired, such as during intercourse. Risks and side effects of the vaginal ring are similar to those of birth control pills.

BIRTH CONTROL IMPLANT

A single-rod progestin implant, Implanon, is available in the United States and elsewhere. It is inserted by a healthcare provider into your arm. It prevents pregnancy for up to 3 years as the hormone is slowly absorbed into the body. It is effective within 24 hours of insertion. Irregular bleeding is the most bothersome side effect. Most women can become pregnant quickly after the rod is removed. (See "Patient information: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

BARRIER METHODS

Barrier contraceptives prevent sperm from entering the uterus. Barrier contraceptives include the condom, diaphragm, and cervical cap. A full discussion of barrier methods of birth control is available separately. (See "Patient information: Barrier methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

Male condom — The male condom is a thin, flexible sheath placed over the penis. To be effective, men who use condoms must carefully follow instructions for their use. Condoms are most effective when used with a vaginal spermicide (see 'Spermicide' below). Using the male condom and a vaginal spermicide is as effective as a hormonal method of birth control, and is more effective than a condom alone.

Many people who choose another method of birth control (eg, pills) also use condoms to decrease their risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases.

Female condom — The female condom is worn by a woman to prevent semen from entering the vagina. It is a sheath made of polyurethane, and is prelubricated. You wear it inside the vagina.

Diaphragm/cervical cap — The diaphragm and cervical cap fit over the cervix, preventing sperm from entering the uterus. These devices are available in latex (the Prentif cap) or silicone rubber (FemCap) in multiple sizes, and require fitting by a clinician. These devices must be used with a spermicide and left in place for six to eight hours after sex. The diaphragm must be removed after this period. However, the cervical cap can remain in place for up to 24 hours.

Spermicide — Spermicides are chemical substances that destroy sperm. They are available in most pharmacies without a prescription. Spermicides are available in a variety of forms including gel, foam, cream, film, suppository, and tablet.

INTRAUTERINE DEVICES (IUD)

IUDs are placed by a healthcare provider through the vagina and cervix, into the uterus. The currently available IUDs are safe and effective. These devices include:

Copper-containing IUD – The Copper-containing IUD remains effective for at least 10 years, but can be removed at any time. The Copper IUD does not contain any hormones. Some women have a heavier menstrual period or more cramps during their period while using a copper IUD.

Levonorgestrel-releasing IUD – The levonorgestrel-releasing IUD releases a hormone, levonorgestrel, which thickens the cervical mucus and thins the endometrium (the lining of the uterus). This IUD also decreases the amount you bleed during your period and decreases pain associated with periods. It can be left in place for up to five years, but can be removed at any time, and is highly effective in preventing pregnancy. Some women stop having menstrual periods entirely; this effect is reversed when the IUD is removed.

STERILIZATION

Sterilization is a procedure that permanently prevents you from becoming pregnant or having children. Tubal ligation (for women) and vasectomy (for men) are the two most common sterilization procedures. Sterilization is permanent, and should only be considered after you discuss all available options with a healthcare provider. (See "Patient information: Permanent sterilization procedures for women (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Vasectomy (Beyond the Basics)".)

Tubal ligation — Tubal ligation is a sterilization procedure for women that surgically cuts, blocks, or seals the fallopian tubes to prevent pregnancy. The procedure is usually done in an operating room as a day surgery. Women who have recently delivered a baby can undergo tubal ligation before going home. The procedure may be done at another time as well. A separate article discusses tubal ligation. (See "Patient information: Permanent sterilization procedures for women (Beyond the Basics)".)

Essure — Essure is a permanent birth control method in which tiny coils are placed into a woman's fallopian tubes. The tissue within the fallopian tubes grows into the coil, blocking them three months after placement in most women. The procedure can be performed in the doctor’s office under local anesthesia (medicine is injected into the cervix to prevent pain). A back up method of birth control (eg, pills, condoms) is needed until you have a test confirming that the fallopian tubes are completed blocked; this is usually performed three months after coil placement.

Vasectomy — Vasectomy is a sterilization procedure for men that cuts or blocks the vas deferens, the tubes that carry sperm from the testes. It is a safe, highly effective procedure that can be performed in a doctor's office under local anesthesia. Following vasectomy, you must use another method of birth control (eg, condoms) for approximately three months, until testing confirms that no sperm are present in the semen. A separate article discusses vasectomy. (See "Patient information: Vasectomy (Beyond the Basics)".)

OTHER BIRTH CONTROL METHODS

Some women and their partners cannot or choose not to use the birth control methods mentioned above due to religious or cultural reasons. Fertility-awareness based methods for preventing pregnancy are based upon the physiological changes during the menstrual cycle. These methods, also called "natural family planning," involve identifying the fertile days of the menstrual cycle using a combination of cycle length and physical manifestations of ovulation (change in cervical secretions, basal body temperature) and then avoiding sexual intercourse or using barrier methods on those days.  

WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION

Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient information: Choosing birth control (The Basics)
Patient information: Long-acting methods of birth control (The Basics)
Patient information: Hormonal birth control (The Basics)
Patient information: Sterilization for women (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient information: Long-term methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Barrier methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Emergency contraception (morning after pill) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Permanent sterilization procedures for women (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Vasectomy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Maternal health and nutrition during breastfeeding (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Intrauterine contraception (IUD): Overview
Contraception counseling for obese women
Contraception for women with inherited thrombophilias
Contraception: Overview of issues specific to adolescents
Counseling women considering combined hormonal contraception
Depot medroxyprogesterone acetate for contraception
Emergency contraception
Female condoms
Fertility awareness-based methods of pregnancy prevention
Hormonal contraception for suppression of menstruation
Barrier contraception: Diaphragm
Hysteroscopic sterilization
Etonogestrel contraceptive implant
Male condoms
Management of problems related to intrauterine contraception
Management of unscheduled bleeding in women using contraception
Overview of contraception
Overview of the use of estrogen-progestin contraceptives
Overview of vasectomy
Postpartum and postabortion contraception
Progestin-only pills (POPs) for contraception
Risks and side effects associated with estrogen-progestin contraceptives
Surgical sterilization of women
Transdermal contraceptive patch
Vasectomy and other vasal occlusion techniques for male contraception

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine

     (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/birthcontrol.html, available in Spanish)

National Women's Health Resource Center (NWHRC)

     Toll-free: (877) 986-9472
     (http://www.healthywomen.org/healthcenter/birth-control)

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

     Phone: (212) 541-7800
     (www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/birth-control-4211.htm)

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Literature review current through: Mar 2014. | This topic last updated: Mar 12, 2014.
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