Most types of contraception don't protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The male condom is the only form of contraception that protects against STIs as well as preventing pregnancy. Therefore, if you're using another type of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill, you should also use a condom to protect yourself against getting a STI.
Types of contraception
Condoms (male and female)
Condoms are a form of barrier contraception. They prevent pregnancy by stopping sperm from reaching and fertilising an egg. Condoms also provide protection against STIs, including HIV, and stop them being passed from one sexual partner to another. Condoms are used during penetrative sex (vaginal or anal) and oral sex to protect against STIs.
Combined contraceptive pill
The combined contraceptive pill, usually just referred to as the pill, contains synthetic (man-made) versions of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which women produce naturally in their ovaries. The pill is usually taken to prevent pregnancy but it can also be used to treat:
- painful periods
- heavy periods
- premenstrual syndrome
Progestogen-only contraceptive pill
The progestogen-only pill doesn't contain any oestrogen. It is an option for women who can't use the combined contraceptive pill, such as those over 35 years old and those who smoke.
Contraceptive implants and injections
Contraceptive implants and injections are long-acting, effective, reversible and progestogen-only methods of contraception. They are over 99% reliable in preventing pregnancy. This means that fewer than 1 in 100 women who use the implant or injection will become pregnant each year. The injection is given every 12 weeks and the implant lasts for 3 years.
Diaphragms and caps
Diaphragms and caps are barrier methods of contraception used by women. They fit inside the vagina and prevent sperm from passing through the entrance of the womb (cervix).
A woman can use emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex, or if a method of contraception has failed. There are two types of emergency contraception:
- the emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes called the morning-after pill)
- the copper intrauterine device (IUD) (see below).
Intrauterine device (IUD)
An intrauterine device (IUD) is a small, T-shaped contraceptive device made from plastic and copper that fits inside the womb (uterus). The IUD used to be called a coil or a loop. It's a long-acting and reversible method of contraception, which can stay in the womb for 5-10 years depending on the type.
Intrauterine system (IUS)
The intrauterine system (IUS) is similar to the intrauterine device (IUD), but it works in a slightly different way. Rather than releasing copper like the IUD, the IUS releases the hormone progestogen, which prevents pregnancy. It's a long-acting, reversible method of contraception that lasts for five years. It can also be used for managing heavy periods.
Vasectomy or 'male sterilisation' is a simple and reliable method of contraception. It's usually considered permanent and is therefore a big decision that should be fully discussed with your GP beforehand. A vasectomy is a quick and relatively painless surgical procedure. It's usually done under local anaesthetic.
Female sterilisation is an effective form of contraception that permanently prevents a woman from being able to get pregnant. Like a vasectomy, female sterilisation is a big decision that should be fully discussed with your GP.
The operation usually involves cutting or blocking the fallopian tubes, which carry eggs from the ovaries to the womb (uterus). This prevents the eggs from reaching the sperm and being fertilised. It's a fairly minor operation and many women can return home the same day.
The vaginal ring is a small, soft plastic ring that's placed inside the vagina on the first day of a woman's period. It is removed after 21 days. Seven days later a new ring is used. A vaginal ring is about 4mm thick and 5.5cm in diameter. It contains oestrogen and progestogen, so it's not suitable for women who can't take oestrogen-containing contraception.
Natural family planning
Natural family planning is when natural signs, such as body temperature, are used to identify when a woman is at her least and most fertile during each menstrual cycle, to help either avoid or plan pregnancy. Natural family planning is estimated to be around 75% effective - so 1 in 4 women using this method of birth control may still become pregnant.
When can I use contraception again after having a baby?
It's possible to become pregnant again very soon after the birth of a baby, even if you're breastfeeding and even if your periods haven't returned. You ovulate (release an egg) about two weeks before your period arrives, so your fertility may have returned before you realise it.
It's important to sort out contraception from the start. If you had your baby in hospital, you should discuss contraception with your doctor or midwife before going home. You'll also be asked about contraception at your six week postnatal check, but you can discuss it at any time with your midwife, doctor or local family planning/sexual health clinic.
You can use male and female condoms as soon as you feel ready to have sex. The combined pill, progestogen-only pill and contraceptive implants can be used from 21 days after the birth. However, the combined pill is not recommended if you are breastfeeding, as it can affect your milk supply.
You can usually have a contraceptive injection or start using a diaphragm or cap around six weeks after giving birth. If you used a diaphragm or cap before becoming pregnant, see your doctor or family planning/sexual health clinic after the birth to ensure that it still fits correctly, as childbirth and other factors such as weight loss/gain can have a significant effect. An IUD or IUS can usually be fitted 6-8 weeks after giving birth.
How effective is contraception?
The effectiveness of contraception depends on factors such as:
- your age
- how often you have sex
- whether you use the contraceptive correctly.
Most types of contraception are over 99% effective if used correctly. The male condom is 98% effective if it's used correctly and consistently. It's the only type of contraception that protects against STIs as well as pregnancy.
Where can I get contraception?
Places where you can get contraception include:
- your doctor
- Sexual Health or Family Planning Clinic
You may need to change the type of contraception that you use as you get older, after having children, or if your sex life changes in any way.
Fertility usually starts to decline from around age 37, although you will still need to use contraception after this time to prevent unplanned pregnancy. Most women will have reached the menopause by the time they're 55 years old and can usually be advised to stop using contraception around this time.