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Overview of contraception

Contraception, or birth control, is the use of medication or devices to prevent pregnancy. Different methods work in different ways. Some prevent ovulation from occurring, so there is no egg to be fertilized. Others prevent the sperm from reaching the egg. There are many different types of contraception, which means there is most likely an option that is right for you.

At Dignity Health, we provide expert advice and birth control to help with all of your family planning and personal health needs. Find a Doctor near you to learn more.

Why it's necessary

Birth control is a serious issue when you consider that about half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. And the 10% of women who do not use any method of birth control only account for half of those pregnancies. This means that human error and failure of some methods account for the other half. And that means you need to carefully consider the effectiveness of the birth control method you choose.

It is also important to keep in mind that preventing pregnancy isn’t the only reason to use contraception. Some types of contraception are used to regulate menstrual periods and treat medical conditions, including:

  • Acne
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Amenorrhea (lack of periods)
  • Painful periods
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Primary ovarian insufficiency (POI)
  • Endometriosis
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)


There are many types of contraception and methods for family planning. Each of these comes with a different rate of success, and this is important to consider when selecting a method. Common contraception options and their success rates include: 

  • Spermicide: This substance kills sperm – 72%
  • Natural family planning: This practice involves abstaining from sex on days when conception is likely – 76%
  • Cervical cap: This is similar to a diaphragm. Cervical caps go over the cervix to prevent sperm from reaching an egg – 76-83%
  • Sponge: This foam device contains spermicide. You place it into the vagina before sex. Unlike diaphragms and cervical caps, you should only use each sponge once – 76-88%
  • Withdrawal: This is the practice of voluntarily removing the penis from the vagina prior to ejaculation – 78%
  • Female condoms: Female condoms are worn inside the vagina and prevent sperm from reaching the female reproductive tract – 79%
  • Male condoms: Male condoms are flexible coverings worn on the penis to prevent sperm from entering a partner’s body – 82%
  • Diaphragm: This dome-shaped device goes over the cervix to prevent sperm from reaching an egg. You insert the diaphragm before sex and remove it after sex – 88%
  • Vaginal ring: This small, flexible device goes inside the vagina and releases hormones to prevent pregnancy. The ring remains in place for three weeks at a time – 91%
  • Patches: Contraceptive patches contain hormones that your skin absorbs. You usually change the patches weekly – 91%
  • Birth control pills: You take these pills daily. They contain hormones to block the release of an egg from the ovary. They also make it more difficult for sperm to get to the fallopian tubes – 91%
  • Injectables: These are hormone shots given by a health care professional every three months – 94%
  • Intrauterine devices (IUDs): These are tiny metal devices placed by a doctor inside the uterus. Some contain hormones. An IUD prevents pregnancy for three to 10 years, depending on the type of device – 99.2-99.8%
  • Sterilization: Different types of surgery serve as permanent methods of birth control, including tubal ligation (for women) and vasectomy (for men) – 99.5-99.85%
  • Hormone implants: Healthcare providers implant these tiny hormone-containing rods under the skin. The rods release hormones and prevent pregnancy for up to three years – 99.95%

Keep in mind that emergency contraception – also known as the morning-after pill – is not considered a primary method of birth control and should never be used as such.

Deciding on a form of contraception is a highly personal choice. Your care provider at Dignity Health can help you choose the method that is best for you, considering your health, medical history, lifestyle, reproductive goals, and personal preferences.


There are some risks associated with taking birth control. Primary among these is the chance that they won’t work, leaving you with an unwanted pregnancy. In addition, just as with any other form of medication, there are potential side effects that come with hormonal methods of birth control. These side effects can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight gain
  • Acne
  • Mood changes
  • Spotting or bleeding between periods
  • Altered menstrual flow
  • Tender or swollen breasts
  • Discoloration of the skin

There is the potential for more serious side effects as well, but they are rare. They include the development of blood clots, stroke, and heart attack. It is also essential to keep in mind that any of these complications can be increased if you smoke cigarettes.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.