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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Special Topics > Birth Control

Birth Control

Alternate Names : Contraception, Family Planning

Overview & Description

Birth control refers to a conscious decision that sexually active couples make to prevent unwanted pregnancy. The decision may result from personal situations or medical conditions.

What is the information for this topic?

Some forms of birth control keep the sperm from fertilizing an egg. Other forms keep the fertilized egg from being implanted. The couple may consider these factors when choosing birth control:

  • availability
  • convenience
  • cost
  • failure rates
  • health risks
  • partner involvement
  • side effects
  • Natural family planning methods

    Many couples choose a natural method because of religious or personal beliefs. Some natural family planning methods are as follows:

  • Withdrawal, or coitus interruptus. The penis is withdrawn from the vagina before the male ejaculates. This method has a high failure rate because sperm may enter the vagina before the penis is removed.
  • Douching after sex. This involves flushing the vagina with a liquid. This method is not very effective. Many sperm continue up to the ovary and can fertilize the egg.
  • The rhythm method. This means a woman avoids sex during the middle of her menstrual cycle. This method has a high failure rate. It should only be used by women who have regular, predictable cycles.
  • Breastfeeding. This method is not entirely reliable in preventing pregnancy. A backup method of birth control, such as a condom, should be used.
  • Traditional barrier methods

    Barrier methods use physical or chemical blocks to keep sperm from fertilizing the woman's egg. These methods include the following:

  • Condoms, or synthetic sheaths. Male condoms cover the penis and keep semen from going into the vagina. Female condoms cover the external genitals and the walls of the vagina.
  • Spermicides. These are chemicals that kill the sperm in the vagina. They come in the form of jellies, foams, creams, films, or suppositories.
  • A diaphragm. This is a flexible rubber cap that is placed inside the vagina.
  • A cervical cap. This is smaller than a diaphragm and covers the cervix.
  • Hormones

    Combinations of female hormones can be used to prevent pregnancy. These combinations include:

  • oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, which prevent ovulation
  • progestin-only birth control pills, or minipills, which do not have estrogen
  • progestin implants, which are small plastic rods that are placed beneath the skin to supply small daily doses of hormones
  • injections of synthetic progestins, which are hormones given every 3 months
  • monthly injections of progestin and estrogen in combination
  • Intrauterine devices

    Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are placed in the uterus. They keep the fertilized egg from being implanted. IUDs have been linked with an increased risk of sexually transmitted disease. They can also increase the risk for pregnancy outside the uterus, or ectopic pregnancy.


    Surgery can be performed on a man or woman to prevent pregnancy. A vasectomy in a male involves cutting and tying off the tubes that carry sperm. A tubal ligation in a woman involves cutting and tying off the fallopian tubes. Surgical removal of the uterus, or hysterectomy, also causes sterilization.

    Emergency contraception

    Emergency contraception means birth control that is given after unprotected intercourse has taken place. Hormones can be given over a 24-hour period, within 72 hours of the unprotected sex. Another method uses an intrauterine device, or IUD. This is placed into the woman's uterus within 5 days after unprotected sex.


    Abstinence, or the avoidance of sexual intercourse, is the only fully effective way to prevent pregnancy.


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    Author: Eva Martin, MD
    Reviewer: Barbara Mallari, RN, BSN, PHN
    Date Reviewed: 07/05/01

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