Male and female birth control options
While it is still somewhat controversial, birth control is now readily available in many countries and is commonly promoted in the Western world as a means of both controlling population growth and exercising reproductive or personal freedom, especially for women.
Though commonly considered birth control, condoms are actually more than just contraceptives—they also protect against many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Actual birth control, however, does not provide this additional protection—it merely inhibits conception.
There are many different types of contraceptives, from one-time barriers to daily pills to permanent surgeries. In most cases, a doctor's prescription is required for hormonal birth control, and permanent birth control methods also require a doctor's care. Barrier methods, such as condoms and contraceptive sponges, are generally available over the counter.
Male Birth Control Options
Though there has been some talk since the late 2000s of a male birth control pill, contraceptive options for men are still pretty limited: for temporary birth control, there's the condom, and for permanent birth control, there's a vasectomy.
Condoms are available at drugstores and pharmacies and come in numerous materials, sizes and styles. A vasectomy is a fairly simply outpatient procedure in which the vas deferens tubes in the male reproductive system are severed, preventing sperm from entering the ejaculate. It is performed by a doctor under local anesthesia and usually heals within one to two weeks, after which the man is sterile.
Female Birth Control Options
Since women are the ones who get pregnant and give birth, it stands to reason that they have considerably more options for birth control.
Probably the most popular form of birth control for women is the birth control pill, of which there are many varieties. Most pills contain a combination of estrogen and progesterone (progestin), which inhibit female fertility, though there are progesterone-only formulations as well. A number of trademark and generic birth control brands crowd the market, all with essentially the same effectiveness. However, because the birth control pill interacts with a woman's body chemistry, different formulations may have different effects. This is why a doctor's advice and prescription are necessary.
The birth control patch works on essentially the same principle as the pill, but rather than ingesting the hormones orally, users of the contraceptive patch absorb the hormones through their skin. The birth control ring also uses absorption to deliver the hormones, but directly through the vaginal wall.
Permanent forms of female birth control include tubal ligation, commonly referred to as "having your tubes tied," and hysterectomy. Generally, a hysterectomy is performed for other health reasons, such as cancer, and not solely for the purpose of birth control.
Birth Control Side Effects
Barrier methods like condoms and sponges rarely have side effects, unless a person is allergic to the material (for example, latex) or a chemical in the spermicidal coating.
Hormonal birth control, on the other hand, can have a number of side effects. One of the most common side effects of birth control pills is weight gain. Others include acne, headaches, nausea and breast tenderness. Vaginal discharge or infections are also reported by pill users but are even more common with the birth control ring.
In extreme cases, hormonal birth control can lead to blood clots, heart attack or stroke. The risk is greater for smokers, and there is some evidence to suggest that the risks may be higher with the patch than with the pill. Given the relative newness of the patch, however, only time will tell if this is really the case.
In general, non-smokers under 35 experience few if any side effects, and what effects they do get tend to be mild and clear up within a few months as their bodies adjust.