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Contraception is the use of hormones, devices or surgery to prevent a woman from becoming pregnant. It allows couples to choose if and when they want to have a baby.
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.
The contraceptive patch is a small, thin, beige patch that measures about 5cm by 5cm and is stuck onto the skin. It's a form of hormonal contraceptive that's worn by a woman to prevent her getting pregnant when she has sex. It's not suitable for women who can't take oestrogen-containing contraception.
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.
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 doctor.
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 womans 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.
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.