Photo of pills, syringe, and condoms used for birth controlBirth control is any method used to prevent pregnancy. At NewYork-Presbyterian, we can help navigate the many options available to prevent pregnancy. Our women's health experts can offer specialized recommendations and knowledge that will assist you in making essential choices regarding family planning.

What is Birth Control?

What is Birth Control?

Birth control, also known as contraceptives in some cases, is the act of preventing pregnancy. Individuals may practice birth control for many reasons beyond simply avoiding pregnancy. Some contraceptives can help ease menstrual cramps, regulate menstruation, clear up acne, relieve endometriosis symptoms, and more. Speaking with your doctor can help determine what birth control is right for you based on your health, cost concerns, how often you engage in sexual intercourse, and your reasons for seeking birth control.

How Birth Control Works?

How it Works?

Different forms of birth control work in various ways to prevent pregnancy. Some attempt to keep sperm from reaching an egg. Others prevent the ovaries from releasing eggs, thus preventing fertilization. Types of birth control include:

  • Behavioral: These are behaviors you and your partner decide to engage in to avoid pregnancy. Examples include not having sexual intercourse altogether, avoiding sexual intercourse at points in a woman's cycle when she is likely to get pregnant, or removing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation.
  • Barriers: This material or item goes on or in your body before sexual intercourse to keep sperm from getting to an egg. The most widely used barrier method is the male condom.
  • Hormonal: These birth control methods change a woman's body chemistry to help avoid pregnancy. Depending on the hormones, they can stop ovaries from releasing eggs, thicken mucus around the cervix to impede sperm from reaching an egg, thin the lining of the uterus, or a combination of the three.
  • Surgical: These are procedures that alter your body's reproductive system. Tubal ligation is a permanent contraception option. The fallopian tubes are closed, cut, or removed. Vasectomy is a surgical birth control option for male patients.

Types of Birth Control


There are dozens of forms of birth control available, and each has benefits, potential risks, and possible side effects. Choosing the correct method for you is an important decision to make with your doctor based on your lifestyle and health.

Abstinence is the act of refraining from sexual intercourse. Some people consider abstinence zero sexual contact, but others believe in only keeping the penis from coming into contact with the vagina. Abstinence is highly effective when used correctly—zero pregnancies will result if you practice abstinence from sexual intercourse. This method of birth control also protects against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) if complete abstinence is practiced (no sexual contact whatsoever).

There is no cost associated with abstinence, and you do not need to see a doctor to practice it. However, abstinence may be emotionally and psychologically difficult for some.

A birth control implant is a hormonal method that entails a doctor inserting a tiny rod (about the size of a matchstick) into a women's upper arm using a needle. The rod will release hormones into the body that will prevent pregnancy. 

Proper use of this method of birth control will result in less than 1 pregnancy per 100 women. The implant can last up to three to five years, and you're able to become pregnant once the implant is removed. The implant does not protect against STIs and may cause side effects such as changes in your bleeding pattern.

The birth control shot, or "depo," is a hormonal injection you get every three months. With ideal use, less than 1 in 100 women would become pregnant with this method. With typical use, that number is closer to 6 in 100. The birth control shot does not protect against STIs and may cause side effects, including changes in your bleeding pattern and weight gain.

A hormonal method of birth control, the transdermal contraceptive patch is a small (about 2 inches across) patch a woman places on her abdomen, back, buttocks or arm. The birth control patch releases estrogen and progestin to prevent fertilization by stopping ovulation. To use the patch properly, wear it for three weeks then remove it for one week during which you will have bleeding. With ideal use, this method results in less than 1 pregnancy per 100 women; with typical use it results in 9 pregnancies per 100 women. The patch can be easy to use, but has cons including a lack of protection against STIs, the possibility of causing a skin reaction, and the need to change the patch somewhat frequently and on time.

"The pill" is a hormonal birth control method where a woman takes one pill containing hormones daily. Depending on the type of medication, the birth control pills may contain both estrogen and progestin or progestin on its own. 

The combination birth control pill halts ovulation and, with ideal use, results in less than 1 pregnancy in every 100 women. With typical use, this number rises to 9 in 100. Birth control pills can be a safe, effective and affordable birth control option.

The progestin-only birth control pill, also known as the minipill, only contains the hormone progestin. Like the combination pill, the minipill haults ovulation. However, the minipill also changes the environment of the uterus to make fertilization more difficult. 

The failure rate of the minipill is higher than that of other forms of birth control. However, it is associated with fewer side effects than the combination pill.

The vaginal birth control ring is a small, flexible ring inserted into the vagina. It is a hormonal birth control method that releases progestin and estrogen. 

There are two types of vaginal rings. One is intended for three weeks of use, and the only can last for up to a year.

This method results in less than 1 pregnancy per 100 women with ideal use. With typical use, it results in 9 pregnancies per 100 women. The ring does not protect against STIs and may cause mild discomfort, vaginal discharge, and an increased heart attack or stroke risk.

Condoms are thin barriers placed either on the penis or inside the vagina that prevent semen (and therefore, sperm) from entering the vagina and reaching an egg. Latex condoms are the most common external condom, and are the most effective protection against STIs other than abstinence. 

Both external and internal condoms are usually made of nitrile (soft plastic). Condoms are widely available and easy to use. Still, they result in a slightly higher rate of pregnancy than some other forms of birth control—with ideal use, 2 in every 100 women becomes pregnant, and with typical use, 18 in 100 women will become pregnant. Condoms also risk breaking or shifting during sex, resulting in compromised protection.

A diaphragm is a shallow, dome-shaped cup inserted into the vagina before sex. It needs to be appropriately inserted, so the cup's rim fits snugly against the pubic bone and covers the cervix, forming a barrier that prevents sperm from entering the uterus. For a diaphragm to be most effective, it should be used in conjunction with spermicide. 

With ideal use, a diaphragm results in 6 pregnancies per 100 women, and with typical use, 12 pregnancies per 100 women. The diaphragm does not protect against STIs. Diaphragms with spermicide may cause irritation, need to fit and refit the diaphragm often, and must be left inside the body for at least six hours after sex.

Emergency contraception should only be used if you have intercourse without birth control and are trying to avoid getting pregnant.

Often referred to as the "morning-after pill," an emergency contraceptive keeps an egg from leaving the ovary and/or may prevent an egg from getting fertilized. This method is approximately 75-89% effective if taken correctly, and depending on the type of morning-after pill taken.

Emergency contraceptive pills must be taken within three days of having unprotected sex or experiencing birth control failure (i.e., a condom breaking). Some forms of this birth control method are available over the counter for women over 18.

Emergency contraception is not intended for regular use as birth control, and may cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and irregular bleeding.

An IUD, or intrauterine device, is a small, T-shaped piece of plastic inserted into the uterus by a doctor. Both hormonal and non-hormonal options are available, but when used properly, both types of IUD result in less than 1 pregnancy per 100 women. 

Hormonal IUDs release a progestin to prevent pregnancy, while the non-hormonal IUD releases copper, which is toxic to sperm. Depending on the type of IUD, it can last anywhere from three to 10 years. IUDs can be removed at any time and should not affect fertility in the future. 

Some mild side effects may occur with the use of this method. In the non-hormonal IUD you have experience heavier menstrual bleeding and more cramps. With the hormonal IUD you may have spotting or little to no bleeding.

Permanent contraception describes a surgical procedure that permanently prevents a woman from getting pregnant or a man from producing sperm. This birth control method is highly effective at preventing pregnancy—almost 100%

A tubal litigation or "getting your tubes tied" is completely permanent for women, and a vasectomy is intended to be permanent for men. You should only use this method of birth control if you're certain you don't want to have children in the future. The surgery is a one-time procedure and comes with the risks of any surgical procedure, such as bleeding and infection.

Vaginal gel is a blanket term for a substance inserted into the vagina to prevent sex. This form of birth control can include spermicides that kill sperm, but it also encompasses gels that prevent pregnancy by affecting the vagina. Most are available over-the-counter. Vaginal gels are hormone-free but do not have the highest rate of pregnancy prevention when compared to hormone options, such as the birth control pill.

Spermicide refers to a type of birth control that contains sperm-killing chemicals. A foam, gel, cream, or tablet containing spermicide is placed in the vagina before intercourse and will work to prevent pregnancy by keeping sperm from reaching an egg. It must be used with every instance of intercourse and left inside the body for up to eight hours after. 

Spermicide can be used on its own or in conjunction with other birth control methods. With ideal use, this birth control method results in 10 pregnancies per 100 women, and with typical use, 16 pregnancies in every 100 women.

Fertility awareness methods (FAM) are ways of tracking a woman's ovulation in order to prevent pregnancy. The days around when a woman ovulates are her most fertile, so choosing to avoid sex or using a barrier method during this time will lower the risk of becoming pregnant. This is an inexpensive and private way to practice birth control, but requires careful record-keeping and limits spontaneous sexual activity during fertile periods. With ideal use, this method results in 5 pregnancies in every 100 women. With typical use, that number is closer to 24 in 100 pregnancies.

Get Care

Find Birth Control Options at NewYork-Presbyterian

Our team of women's health experts can help you navigate the many birth control options available. Our physicians can discuss pros and cons of each method and make recommendations based on your goals and lifestyle. Whether or not you ever decide to become pregnant, NewYork-Presbyterian can support your sexual and reproductive health journey every step of the way.