What is birth control?

HotbotBy HotBotUpdated: June 29, 2024

Birth control, often referred to as contraception, is a method or device used to prevent pregnancy. It encompasses a wide range of techniques and practices designed to prevent fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg. Birth control has been a critical aspect of reproductive health, allowing individuals and couples to plan and space pregnancies, thereby improving maternal and child health outcomes.

History of Birth Control

The history of birth control is rich and varied, spanning thousands of years and encompassing numerous cultures and societies. Ancient Egyptian women, for instance, used honey, acacia leaves, and lint to block sperm. In ancient Greece, women used the seeds of Queen Anne's lace as a form of contraception. Modern birth control methods began to develop in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the invention of condoms, diaphragms, and eventually, the birth control pill.

Types of Birth Control

There are several types of birth control, each with its own method of preventing pregnancy. These methods can be broadly categorized into hormonal, barrier, intrauterine, natural, and permanent methods.

Hormonal Methods

Hormonal birth control methods work by regulating or stopping ovulation, thickening cervical mucus to block sperm, or thinning the uterine lining to prevent implantation. Common hormonal methods include:

  • Birth Control Pills: Taken daily, these pills contain estrogen and progestin, or progestin alone.
  • Contraceptive Patch: A patch worn on the skin that releases hormones to prevent pregnancy.
  • Vaginal Ring: A flexible ring inserted into the vagina that releases hormones.
  • Injectable Contraceptives: Hormonal injections administered every three months.
  • Implants: Small rods implanted under the skin that release hormones over several years.

Barrier Methods

Barrier methods prevent sperm from reaching the egg. These methods include:

  • Condoms: Thin latex or polyurethane sheaths worn on the penis or inside the vagina during intercourse.
  • Diaphragms: Dome-shaped devices inserted into the vagina to cover the cervix.
  • Cervical Caps: Similar to diaphragms but smaller, these caps fit more snugly over the cervix.
  • Spermicides: Chemicals that kill sperm, often used with other barrier methods.
  • Sponges: Foam devices containing spermicide that are inserted into the vagina.

Intrauterine Devices (IUDs)

IUDs are small, T-shaped devices inserted into the uterus by a healthcare provider. They can be hormonal or non-hormonal (copper). Hormonal IUDs release progestin, while copper IUDs create an environment toxic to sperm.

Natural Methods

Natural methods involve tracking the menstrual cycle and avoiding intercourse during fertile periods. These methods include:

  • Fertility Awareness: Tracking ovulation through body temperature, cervical mucus, and menstrual cycles.
  • Withdrawal: The male partner withdraws before ejaculation to prevent sperm from entering the vagina.
  • Lactational Amenorrhea: Breastfeeding as a temporary method of birth control during the postpartum period.

Permanent Methods

Permanent methods involve surgical procedures to permanently prevent pregnancy. These methods include:

  • Tubal Ligation: Surgical procedure for women where the fallopian tubes are cut, tied, or sealed.
  • Vasectomy: Surgical procedure for men where the vas deferens are cut or sealed.

Effectiveness of Birth Control Methods

The effectiveness of birth control methods varies, with some methods being more reliable than others. Hormonal methods, IUDs, and permanent methods are generally more effective than barrier and natural methods. For example:

  • Birth control pills, patches, and rings are about 91% effective with typical use.
  • IUDs and implants are over 99% effective.
  • Condoms are about 85% effective with typical use.
  • Natural methods vary in effectiveness but can be as low as 76% effective.

Choosing the Right Birth Control

Choosing the right birth control method depends on various factors, including personal health, convenience, cost, and lifestyle. Here are some considerations:

  • Health Conditions: Some methods may not be suitable for individuals with certain health conditions. For example, hormonal methods may not be recommended for women with a history of blood clots.
  • Convenience: Daily pills may not be ideal for those who have difficulty remembering to take medication, while long-term methods like IUDs or implants may be more suitable.
  • Cost: While some methods like condoms are inexpensive and readily available, others like IUDs or implants may have higher upfront costs but can be cost-effective in the long run.
  • Side Effects: Some methods may have side effects such as weight gain, mood changes, or irregular bleeding.
  • Future Fertility: Consider whether you want a reversible method or are looking for a permanent solution.

Access to Birth Control

Access to birth control varies widely across the globe and is influenced by factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural beliefs, and government policies. In some regions, birth control is readily available and covered by health insurance, while in others, it may be restricted or difficult to obtain.

Barriers to Access

Some common barriers to accessing birth control include:

  • Cost: The expense of some contraceptive methods can be prohibitive for low-income individuals.
  • Lack of Education: Misunderstandings and lack of information about birth control options can limit usage.
  • Cultural and Religious Beliefs: In some communities, cultural or religious beliefs may discourage or forbid the use of birth control.
  • Policy and Legal Restrictions: Government policies and legal restrictions can limit access to certain types of birth control.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Birth Control

Understanding the pros and cons of different birth control methods can help individuals make informed decisions.


  • Prevention of Unplanned Pregnancies: Birth control allows individuals to plan and space pregnancies.
  • Health Benefits: Some methods can reduce the risk of certain cancers, regulate menstrual cycles, and treat conditions like endometriosis.
  • Empowerment: Access to birth control empowers individuals to make decisions about their reproductive health.


  • Side Effects: Some methods may cause side effects such as nausea, weight gain, or mood changes.
  • Cost: The expense of some methods can be a barrier for some individuals.
  • Access Issues: Legal, cultural, and logistical barriers can limit access to birth control.

The Future of Birth Control

The field of birth control continues to evolve, with ongoing research and development aimed at creating new and improved methods. Innovations in male contraception, non-hormonal methods, and long-acting reversible contraceptives are some areas of focus.

Male Contraception

Research into male contraception is exploring options such as hormonal injections, gels, and reversible vasectomy techniques. These methods aim to provide men with more control over their reproductive health and share the responsibility of contraception.

Non-Hormonal Methods

Non-hormonal methods are being developed to provide alternatives for individuals who cannot or prefer not to use hormonal contraception. These methods may include new types of IUDs, contraceptive gels, and vaccines.

Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs)

LARCs, such as IUDs and implants, are gaining popularity due to their effectiveness and convenience. Research is focused on improving these methods and making them more accessible.

Birth control is a multifaceted aspect of reproductive health that encompasses a wide range of methods and practices. From ancient techniques to modern innovations, birth control has evolved to meet the diverse needs of individuals and couples. Understanding the various types, effectiveness, and considerations can help individuals make informed decisions about their reproductive health.

With continued advancements and a focus on accessibility, the future of birth control holds promise for more effective, convenient, and diverse options. As society continues to recognize the importance of reproductive autonomy, birth control will remain a critical component of health and well-being.

Related Questions

How long does birth control take to work?

Birth control, also known as contraception, is a method used to prevent pregnancy. There are various forms of birth control including hormonal pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), contraceptive patches, injections, and barrier methods, each with different mechanisms and timelines for effectiveness. Understanding how long each method takes to work is crucial for effectively managing reproductive health.

Ask Hotbot: How long does birth control take to work?