Birth Control: Different Types, Side Effects, and Effectiveness

By Sabina Rebis, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 8, 2022

While many people think of birth control as only a way to prevent pregnancy, it’s important to understand that it can be used for other purposes.

Birth control pills, for example, can be used to regulate periods, treat acne, and help with other hormone-related issues. This is because birth control pills contain hormones that keep your body from ovulating.

Many different types of birth control exist, and each have their own advantages, disadvantages, and side effects.

While lots of information is available, it can be hard to determine which birth control method is right for you.

In this article, we will cover everything from different types of birth control to how each of them works, their side effects, and the duration of the effectiveness of the birth control method you choose. 

What Is Birth Control?

Birth control, also known as contraception and fertility control, is a method used to prevent pregnancy.

According to a study, nearly 14% of people in the age range of 15-49 years use birth control.

It is, however, also important to remember that a large number of people also use birth control in no relation to pregnancy.

Studies have also shown that people also use birth control to reduce cramps or menstrual pain, prevent migraines, acne, and to treat endometriosis. 

Different Types of Birth Control

Many different types of birth control are available. Some are more effective than others, so it’s important to figure out which type of birth control is right for you.

Intrauterine methods

An intrauterine device (IUD) or intrauterine system (IUS) is a T-shaped device that is inserted into your uterus by a healthcare provider.

There are two types of intrauterine methods: hormonal and non-hormonal. Each type has different side effects and health benefits.

  • Hormonal IUD/IUS: A hormonal IUD, or Levonorgestrel Intrauterine System (LNG IUD), releases a low amount of the hormone progestin into your body each day, after it’s inserted into your uterus by a healthcare provider during an office visit or procedure. The hormone’s effect prevents your body from releasing eggs, thickens your cervical mucus to prevent sperm from reaching an egg, and prevents pregnancy. The LNG IUD remains in your uterus for up to 3-6 years, depending on the device. The failure rate of a hormonal IUS is less than 1%; however, a small percentage of people may experience expulsion or displacement of the device and will need to have it reinserted.
  • Copper T intrauterine device (IUD): A copper T IUD releases copper ions into your uterus, which changes the way sperm move and prevents the sperm from fertilizing an egg. A copper IUD can also stop the implantation of a fertilized egg by altering the uterus lining. The copper IUD remains in your uterus for up to 10 years, depending on the device. The failure and expulsion/reinsertion rates of a copper IUD are similar to those of a hormonal IUD.

Hormonal methods

Hormonal birth control methods include pills, implants, and injections.

These work by releasing hormones into your body that prevent you from ovulating (i.e., releasing an egg) or thickening your cervical mucus to prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg.

  • Implants: An implant is a single matchstick-sized, flexible, plastic rod that is inserted under the skin of a person’s upper arm. The rod releases progestin and can remain implanted for up to 5 years. This birth control method has a failure rate of less than 1%.
  • Injections: The birth control injection is a progestin-only shot that you receive every 12 weeks in the buttocks or arm. It has a failure rate of less than 1%.
  • Progestin-only pills (POPs): POPs are a type of pill that contains progestin. They are taken daily and prevent ovulation. They also result in thickened cervical mucus, which can stop sperm from fertilizing an egg. This birth control method has a failure rate of 7%, but is a great option for people who cannot take estrogen.
  • Combination pills (COCPs): A combination pill contains the hormones estrogen and progestin. Depending on the pill type, you will be recommended to take one pill daily for 3 weeks, and then no pills (or a placebo sugar pill containing no hormones) for a week so you can have your period. This birth control method has a failure rate of 7%.
  • Vaginal rings: Vaginal rings are clear, plastic rings that you insert into your vagina and are about two inches in diameter. A vaginal ring continuously releases a combination of Ethinyl estradiol and progestin for three weeks. The ring is worn for 3 weeks, removed at the beginning of the 4th week, and reinserted after 1 week has passed.
  • Contraceptive patch: This is a thin, beige, plastic patch that sticks to your skin and is worn on the lower abdomen, buttocks, or upper body (though not on the breasts). It releases estrogen and progestin into your body through the skin. It’s worn for 1 week and changed once a week for 3 weeks, followed by no patch in the 4th week.

Barrier methods

Barrier methods of contraception are designed to prevent sperm from entering the uterus. Failure rates differ, depending on the type of method used. Some barrier methods require a healthcare provider visit, while others don’t.

  • External condoms: An external condom, or male condom, is a thin sheath that covers the penis during sexual intercourse. It’s made of latex, polyurethane, or lamb intestine. When used correctly, external condoms are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy and can only be used once.
  • Internal condoms: An internal condom, also known as female condoms, is a pouch made of synthetic rubber. It has a flexible ring at each end—one to hold it in place inside the vagina and the other to keep semen out. When used correctly, they are 95% effective in preventing pregnancy and may also help prevent STDs. Internal condoms can only be used once.
  • Diaphragm or cervical cap: A diaphragm is a soft, silicone cup that’s inserted into the vagina to cover the cervix. A cervical cap is a thimble-shaped device that fits over the cervix. Both of these devices must be fitted by a healthcare provider and are reusable.
  • Spermicide: Spermicidal foam, cream, gel, film, or suppository kills sperm before they reach the egg. When used with condoms, it increases their effectiveness in preventing pregnancy. It should not be used alone as your only form of birth control because its failure rate is high at 21%.

Emergency contraception

Emergency contraception is not a regular method of birth control. This method can be used after unprotected intercourse or if a condom breaks.

  • Copper IUD: The copper IUD can be used as emergency contraception up to 5 days after unprotected sex.
  • Emergency contraceptive pills: Emergency contraceptive pills, also known as the morning-after pill, can be taken up to 5 days after unprotected sex. However, morning-after pills are most effective when taken within 72 hours or less of intercourse. The sooner the pills are taken, the more effective they are.

Permanent Birth Control Methods

These methods are designed to be permanent and will require a healthcare provider visit.

  • Tubal ligation (sterilization): During a tubal ligation, the fallopian tubes are cut or blocked with rings to prevent conception. It’s 99.85% effective and is considered to be a permanent method of birth control. However, sterilization can sometimes be reversed through a surgery performed by your doctor.
  • Vasectomy (sterilization): A vasectomy involves cutting or blocking the tubes that carry sperm from the testicles to the penis. It can take up to 3 months for the vasectomy to be effective.
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How Birth Control Works

Birth control works by keeping the body from releasing eggs.

It does this in one of three ways: preventing the release of an egg (known as ovulation), thickening cervical mucus, or thinning the uterine lining to prevent implantation.

The most effective methods that work by stopping ovulation altogether include birth control pills, the implant, and the IUD.

Birth Control Effectiveness

Birth control can be very effective when used correctly.

The effectiveness of birth control depends on the methods you use, your lifestyle, and how well you follow directions.

Hormonal IUDs and implants are more than 99% effective in preventing pregnancy if used correctly and consistently.

Other birth control methods can also be highly effective if used correctly.

MethodsEffectiveness
Birth Control Implant99%
IUD99%
Birth Control Shot94%
Birth Control Vaginal Ring91%
Birth Control Patch91%
Birth Control Pill91%
Male Condom85%
Female Condom79%
Diaphragm88%
Birth Control Sponge76%-80%
Spermicide and Gel72%-86%
Cervical Cap71%-86%
Sterilization (Tubal Ligation)99%
Vasectomy99%

Side Effects of Birth Control

All medications have potential side effects. Birth control is no exception.

It is important to weigh the risks and benefits of any medication before starting it.

Some may experience minor side effects such as:

  • Breast tenderness
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Spotting between periods
  • Weight gain

Other rare but serious side effects include:

  • Blood clots
  • Depression
  • Gallbladder problems
  • Heart disease
  • Liver damage
  • Stroke

If you experience any of these side effects, speak with your healthcare provider. Birth control is not for everyone, and other safer methods of contraception are available to you.

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How to Access Birth Control

Birth control is available over-the-counter (OTC) and by prescription.

You can purchase condoms, spermicide, sponges, diaphragms, and cervical caps at most drug stores or online without a prescription.

Birth control pills require a prescription from your doctor, but they are easily accessible through pharmacies in most areas.

Other forms of birth control, such as IUDs, implants, vaginal rings, and patches, require a prescription from your doctor.

You can talk to your primary care physician or gynecologist about prescribing birth control for you.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a licensed healthcare professional in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

FAQs

Is birth control safe?
Birth control can be safe for most people. However, certain forms of birth control are not recommended for those with certain medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, liver disease, clotting disorders, history of blood clots, or for those who smoke. Make sure you speak with your doctor before beginning any form of birth control.
What's the best birth control method?
There is no one "best" birth control method. The best method for you depends on your lifestyle, health, and preferences. Talk to your doctor about the different methods available and find the one that is right for you.
Does insurance cover birth control?
Most insurance plans cover birth control. Make sure to check with your insurer before purchasing a prescription for birth control.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Sabina Rebis, MD

Dr. Sabina Rebis is a board certified family medicine physician with over 5 years of primary care and urgent care experience.

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