U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Choose the Right Birth Control

The Basics

The Basics: Overview

Birth control (also called contraception) can help you prevent pregnancy when you don’t want to have a baby. Male and female condoms can also help protect you and your sex partner from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

How do I choose the right birth control?

There isn’t one method of birth control that’s right for everyone. Each type of birth control has pros and cons.

Here are some things to think about when choosing a birth control method:

  • Do you want to have children some day? How soon?
  • Do you have any health conditions?
  • How often do you have sex?
  • How many sex partners do you have?
  • Do you also need protection against HIV and other STDs?
  • How well does the birth control method work?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • Will you be able to use it correctly every time?

How does birth control work?

It depends on the type of birth control you use. Different methods of birth control work in different ways. 

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The Basics: IUDs

IUDs (intrauterine devices)

An IUD is a small, T-shaped piece of plastic with copper or hormones. It’s put inside a woman’s uterus by a doctor or nurse.

There are 2 kinds:

  • Copper IUD – This releases a small amount of copper to prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg. It can last for up to 10 years.
  • Hormonal IUD – Hormonal IUDs release a small amount of hormone to prevent pregnancy. There are 3 different types of hormonal IUDs. One kind can last for up to 5 years. The other kinds can last for up to 3 years.

An IUD is very effective at preventing pregnancy. You don't feel the IUD when it’s in place – and there's nothing to do or remember.

If you have an IUD and you want to get pregnant, a doctor or nurse can easily remove it. Read more about IUDs.

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The Basics: Hormonal Methods

Hormonal methods

These methods work by preventing a woman’s ovaries from releasing an egg each month. They also cause other changes that make it more difficult to get pregnant.

Some hormonal methods work better than others, and some require more effort to use. For example, birth control pills have to be taken every day, but an implant lasts for up to 3 years once it's in place.

Hormonal methods include:

  • Hormonal IUD – can last for 3 to 5 years, depending on the type
  • Implant (a small rod put under the skin) – can last for 3 years
  • Shot – given by a doctor or nurse every 3 months
  • Patch – worn on the skin and replaced once a month
  • Ring – put in the vagina and replaced once a month
  • Birth control pills – must be taken every day

If you are interested in a hormonal method of birth control, talk with your doctor about which kind is best for you. Read more about hormonal birth control options.

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The Basics: Barrier Methods

Barrier methods

Barrier methods work by preventing the sperm and egg from touching each other. Common barrier methods include:

  • Male condoms (worn on the penis)
  • Female condoms (placed on the outside and inside of the vagina)
  • Birth control diaphragm or cervical cap (placed inside the vagina)
  • Birth control sponge (placed inside the vagina)

Male latex (rubber) condoms are also very effective in preventing HIV and reducing the risk of other STDs when used correctly every time you have sex. Female condoms may also help prevent HIV and other STDs.

Read more about barrier methods.

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The Basics: Natural Family Planning

Natural family planning (NFP)

NFP works by learning which days a woman is more likely to get pregnant. People who want to prevent pregnancy don’t have sex on these days or they use another method of birth control.

NFP is only an option for women who have regular periods. It's important to know that NFP is not as effective at preventing pregnancies as some other forms of birth control, like IUDs or hormonal methods.

Couples can also use NFP when they are trying to get pregnant. Read more about natural family planning.

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The Basics: Emergency Contraception

Emergency contraception

Sometimes people forget to use birth control (for example, they miss a pill or shot) or their birth control fails (like if the condom breaks).

There are 2 options for emergency contraception:

  • Copper IUD – A doctor or nurse will need to place this inside the woman’s uterus within 5 days of unprotected sex.
  • Emergency contraception pills (ECPs) – The woman will need to take ECPs as soon as possible within 5 days of unprotected sex. You can buy some ECPs at a drugstore without a prescription. To get other ECPs, you need a prescription from a doctor.

Taking ECPs won’t stop or harm a pregnancy that has already happened. Read more about emergency contraception pills.

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The Basics: Sterilization

Sterilization

Sterilization is a permanent method of birth control. This is an option for people who are 100% sure they don’t want any more children.

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The Basics: STD Prevention

What types of birth control help prevent STDs?

Abstinence (not having vaginal, anal, or oral sex) is the only sure way to prevent STDs.

If you are sexually active, using a latex male condom correctly every time you have sex is a very effective way to prevent many STDs, including HIV. Female condoms may also lower the risk of some STDs.

Barrier methods used inside the vagina, like the female condom and diaphragm, can also lower the risk of some STDs.

Non-barrier methods (like birth control pills, IUDs, and other hormonal methods) don’t prevent STDs. If you choose one of these types of birth control, keep in mind that it won't protect you from HIV and other STDs – so you may also want to use condoms for protection.

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The Basics: How to Get It

Do I need to see a doctor to get birth control?

It depends on which birth control method you choose. You can buy some birth control over the counter. Over the counter means you can buy it at a store without a prescription. For other methods, you will need to see a doctor or nurse.

Birth control methods you can get without a prescription include:

  • Male condoms
  • Female condoms
  • Emergency contraception pills
  • Birth control sponge

Birth control methods you can get only from a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist include:

  • Birth control pills
  • Patch
  • Diaphragm and cervical cap
  • Shot
  • Ring 

You need a medical procedure for:

  • Sterilization (for both women and men)
  • IUD (intrauterine device)
  • Implant 

Check out these resources to learn more about the different types of birth control:

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Take Action!

Take Action: Get Help

Follow these steps to choose the right birth control for you.

Talk to a nurse, doctor, or family planning educator.

Ask about the types of birth control that are available to you. There are lots of different factors that can affect your choice, including:

  • Your overall health
  • Whether you want to have children in the future
  • How well the birth control works
  • What side effects the birth control may cause

What about cost?

The Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010, requires most insurance plans to cover birth control that's prescribed by a woman's doctor. They also must cover patient education and counseling about birth control for women.

Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get these services at no cost to you. Talk to your insurance company to learn more. For information about other services for women covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.

Find free or low-cost services near you.

If you don’t have insurance that covers birth control, you may be able to get free or low-cost birth control through a family planning clinic or community health center.

Family planning clinics provide education, counseling, and medical services (including birth control). No one is turned away for not being able to pay. To get services near you, find a local health center.

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Take Action: Talk about It

Talk to your sex partner.

Some types of birth control are used by men, and some types are used by women. It's a good idea to have a conversation with your partner to make sure that both of you are comfortable with the birth control method you choose.

And when you both understand how a method works, it will be easier to use the method correctly.

Understand the instructions.

Be sure you understand what you need to do to protect yourself from an unplanned pregnancy or an STD. If you have questions, talk to a doctor or pharmacist.

Get tips on how to use a condom correctly.

Have a back-up plan.

It's important to know what to do if you forget to use birth control or if your birth control method fails. For example, you may want to buy emergency contraception pills (ECPs) in advance. That way, you'll have them if you need them.

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Take Action: STD Testing

Get tested for STDs.

Most people who have an STD (like chlamydia or gonorrhea) don’t have any symptoms. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure you have one.

Have an honest conversation with your doctor about your sexual activity and ask if you need to be tested for STDs.

To find a place to get tested:

Use these conversation starters to talk with your partner about getting tested, too.

Get tested for HIV.

As with other STDs, getting tested for HIV is the only way you know if you have the disease.

You can get tested at a doctor’s office or health center. To find an HIV testing center:

Take this list of questions about HIV testing to your appointment.

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