If you are ready to have sex but want to make it safe, there are plenty of contraception options out there.
Whether you are looking for protection against sexually transmitted infections (STI) or just keen to ensure there are no baby surprises in your future, there’s something for everyone.
We’re going to look at eight contraception solutions, explore their pros and cons, and give you guidance on where to get them.
Read on to find out more about what might work best for you.
What we’ll be looking into:
- Eight different methods of birth control
- Hormonal birth control options
- Long-lasting contraceptive solutions and the pros and cons
- A brief overview of the side effects you may experience with each form of contraception
If you are looking for a non-hormonal, STI and pregnancy barrier, condoms are the number one choice.
On an erect penis, the condom works as a sheath rolled on from the tip to provide a barrier during penetration.
Condoms used vaginally (aka Femidoms) have a closed-ringed end which is inserted inside the vagina as far as possible, leaving an open end for penetration.
It is incredibly easy to get hold of condoms, whether you are doing your weekly shop or making an emergency purchase in a bar toilet after getting lucky.
The condom is also a user-friendly product with multiple fit, feel and taste options. Many are made of latex, but if you’re allergic, there are non-latex options too.
If used correctly, condoms are 98% effective, prevent STIs, and provide birth control. The fact there is a condom option for all genders is also a bonus.
There’s a bit of admin involved in condom use, and in the moment of passion, getting one and putting it on can result in an awkward interlude.
If you haven’t developed a level of intimacy with your partner or it’s a casual thing, this could be a bit embarrassing.
Some people also feel that when they use condoms, they lose sensation, interfering with their level of pleasure.
However, the Terrence Higgins Trust suggests you can counter this issue by choosing thinner condoms or ones with ribbing to stimulate feeling.
Where can you get condoms?
You can buy condoms in supermarkets, shops and pharmacies, and you’ll often find them sold in the toilets at bars and clubs.
The Terrence Higgins Trust runs a C-Card scheme for young people between 13 – 24 to provide free condoms, femidoms, lubricants and dams, as well as advice.
You can get the C-Card through various outlets, including your local iCaSH (integrated contraceptive and sexual health) service.
#2: The combined pill
The combined pill is an oral contraceptive which uses synthetic versions of sex hormones oestrogen and progestogen to prevent ovulation.
The NHS explains that the combined pill stops the ovaries from releasing an egg and “thickens the mucus in the neck of the womb, so it’s harder for sperm to reach an egg.”
The most commonly used combined pills are either taken once a day for 21 days of the cycle, with four to seven days off or one pill every day of the 28 days.
If the combined pill is taken correctly, its effectiveness at stopping pregnancy is 99%.
They are sometimes prescribed to people as a tool to ease menstrual cramps, endometriosis pain and other severe PMS symptoms.
It can also reduce the risk of cancer in the ovaries, colon and womb.
In their study on hormone-based therapy treatments for acne, authors Trivedi et al. found that “Treatment with oral contraceptive pills leads to significant reductions in lesion counts across all lesion types.”
For the combined pill to be effective, you must remember to take it, so the margin for human error is significant, and there’s no protection against STIs.
You may notice temporary side effects for the first few months of taking the combined pill, including feeling sick, headaches and sore breasts.
Planned Parenthood, the American sexual health organisation, outlines the small increased health risks that come with taking the combined pill.
They write: “Even though birth control pills are very safe, using the combination pill can slightly increase your risk of health problems. Complications are rare, but they can be serious. These include heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and liver tumours.”
Where can you get the combined pill?
The good news is that you can get the combined pill free from the NHS, but you will need to see a medical professional before you are given a prescription.
Make an appointment with your GP or visit a local sexual health clinic to have a consultation and find out if the combined pill is suitable for you.
It’s worth noting that the combined pill is not suitable for people over 35 who smoke, people who are carrying a significant amount of excess weight and those taking incompatible medications.
#3: Progestogen-only pill
The alternative to the combined pill is the progestogen-only pill that does not contain oestrogen.
Its impact on the reproductive system is three-fold, as explained by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
They write, “The mucus in the cervix thickens, making it difficult for sperm to enter the uterus and fertilise an egg.
“Progestogen stops ovulation, but it does not do so consistently. About 4 in 10 women who use progestogen-only pills will continue to ovulate. Progestogen thins the lining of the uterus.”
You take one tablet every day with no breaks, and if you miss a pill, you have a window of either three hours (using the traditional progestogen-only pill) or 12 hours (desogestrel-progestogen pill) to take it and remain protected.
Like the combined pill, the progestogen-only pill has a 99% effectiveness rate if taken perfectly.
As you take it every day, your periods will stop, and that can provide a welcome relief for those who bleed heavily or suffer painful PMS.
The absence of oestrogen in these pills means there’s no increased risk of blood pressure, deep vein thrombosis or cardiovascular problems, and it may be suitable for smokers over 35 and people carrying extra weight.
You must remember to take it, and if you don’t take it at the same time every day, the progestogen-only pill’s effectiveness is reduced.
You might experience mood and sex drive changes, nausea, acne and breast tenderness in the first few months.
Scientists are still researching a potential link between the progestogen-only pill and breast cancer, although no increased risk has been proved so far.
Where can you get the progestogen-only pill?
As with the combined pill, you can get the progestogen-only pill for free from your GP, sexual health or contraceptive clinics and some young people’s services.
#4: Contraceptive patch
Another 99% effective hormone-based treatment is the contraceptive patch, a square, plaster-like patch that is applied to the skin.
Oestrogen and progestogen are absorbed by the skin and stop the ovaries from releasing eggs, as well as thickening the mucus around the neck of the womb to prevent sperm from getting in.
You change the patch every week and then have one week patch-free, which is usually when you’ll have your period.
Like the pill, this pregnancy-preventative treatment won’t interrupt sex in the moment and helps reduce period pains.
University College London’s Contraceptive Choices service also highlights that it can help protect against “womb, ovarian and colorectal cancer”.
Since periods usually arrive during the patch-free week, you can be well prepared for monthly bleeding, and they’ll often be lighter.
The effectiveness of this birth control relies on the person remembering to change their patch, which can be a problem.
For people of colour, the fact the patch is only available in a light tone means it can compromise privacy and cause embarrassment.
The patch doesn’t help to protect against STIs, so you need to use condoms as well to be safe.
Where can you get the contraceptive patch?
Speak to your GP or medical professional at a contraception or sexual health service to discuss using patches.
The patch method of contraception is available free on the NHS.
#5: Contraceptive implant
If you want a long-lasting and highly effective birth control product, the implant (Nexplanon) is a great option.
The implant is a small plastic rod containing progestogen placed under the skin in the upper arm under local anaesthetic, and it can remain in place for three years.
Suitable for people of any age, the implant is a good option for those who can’t take oestrogen.
Once the implant is in, you don’t have to think about it for three years unless there is some complication.
There are no pills to remember or patches to change, and it’s so effective that less than 1% of people get pregnant when using implants.
Like other progestogen-only products, it can relieve the symptoms of PMS, and when it’s taken out, your natural fertility will return quickly.
Planned Parenthood explains that there is a chance you may feel a bit of pain, have swelling or get an infection after having the procedure to put the implant in.
The body has to get used to the implant, which can lead to some of the same side effects that pill users experience – such as mood swings, nausea, headaches and sore breasts.
Some implant users may develop acne or see their pre-existing acne get worse.
Where can I get the contraceptive implant?
According to the NHS, which offers the implant for free, you can get it fitted in most sexual health clinics.
If you go to the GP, either the doctor or one of the practice nurses may be able to fit or remove the implant for you.
#6: Copper coil or IUD
If you want a long-lasting, non-hormonal solution, the copper coil (aka IUD) could be the answer.
The Cleveland Clinic explains: “All IUDs trigger an immune response. Your body recognizes an IUD as an invader and springs into action to defend itself. This process results in inflammation.
“Inflammation in your uterus creates an environment that’s toxic to sperm. As a result, sperm can’t reach your fallopian tubes to fertilise an egg.”
The IUD can last between five to ten years and requires no effort on the part of the user.
The absence of hormones makes it suitable for people with oestrogen issues and those over 35 who smoke or carry extra weight.
It can be removed quickly, and your body’s cycle should not be impacted due to the absence of hormonal intervention.
The procedure to fit the IUD can be a painful one, and it could make your periods heavier and more painful.
You’ll need to have an STI check before you have the IUD fitted, and it doesn’t offer any protection against sexually transmitted infections.
Research shows that one in 20 IUDs will fall out, so you have to check the threads are there during those first three months to ensure it’s in place.
Where can I get the IUD?
Either consult your GP or sexual health clinic to have an IUD fitted.
There will be an internal examination to check the size and position of your uterus before the procedure takes place.
#7: Hormonal coil or ius
The hormonal coil, or IUS, is another progestogen-only solution which is inserted into the womb in the same way as an IUD.
It’s made entirely from plastic and releases a low level of progestogen into the body, which thickens the cervical mucus, making it harder for sperm to penetrate.
It also creates an inhospitable environment for a fertilised egg by thinning the uterine lining and, for some people, stops ovulation.
With an over 99% effectiveness rate, the IUS is a reliable contraceptive, and it will last for either three or five years, depending on which you choose.
Sexwise, a service from the Department of Health and Social Care, explain: “Your periods usually become much lighter and shorter and sometimes less painful.
They may stop completely after the first year of use. This can be useful if you have heavy, painful periods.”
As with the IUD, it can be painful to have the IUS fitted, and one in 20 will fall out, so you need to keep a check on that.
You may experience the short-term side effects of breast soreness, headaches and nausea as your body adapts to the hormonal changes.
Where can I get an IUS fitted?
Once again, head to the sexual health service near you or speak to your GP to get an IUS fitted.
#8: Contraceptive injection
Another progestogen-only option is the injection, which has to be given every three months.
It works by injecting progestogen into the bottom or upper arm, where the hormone then acts to thicken cervical mucus and thin uterine lining to disrupt sperm progress, stops ovulation and makes it harder for fertilised eggs to implant.
The NHS contraceptive guide explains there are three types of injection available:
“Depo-Provera is most commonly given in the UK and lasts for 13 weeks. Occasionally, Noristerat may be given, which lasts for eight weeks.
Sayana Press also lasts for 13 weeks, but it’s a newer type of injection, so it is not available at all clinics or GP surgeries.”
At 97%, the injection has a decent effectiveness rate and doesn’t rely on the person remembering to take a pill to prevent pregnancy.
It can also offer relief for period pains, protects against ovarian and womb cancer, and can help manage endometriosis symptoms.
Regular injections aren’t many people’s idea of fun, so if you are particularly needle-squeamish, this might not work for you.
The injection can also increase appetite, and some people will gain weight, and there can be a temporary impact on bone density while on it.
Also, if you are planning to have a baby at some point, be aware that it can take up to a year for you to return to your normal level of fertility.
Where can I get the contraceptive injection?
The good news is that it’s very easy and free to get the contraceptive injection via the NHS.
See your GP, or visit a sexual health clinic.
Make the right choice for you
We’ve taken you through a brief guide to eight of the most common forms of contraception available.
Hopefully, it’s given you a starting point to explore the right method for you and an understanding of the options available.
As ever, make sure to speak to a medical professional to get in-depth advice.
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