There are many kinds of birth control, but condoms are the only option that protects against both pregnancy and STIs. Other forms of birth control such as the pill, patch, or ring do not protect against STIs. You must use a secondary form of protection to keep yourself safe from STIs if you’re using these options. Read on to learn more about how to prevent both STIs and pregnancy.
How Birth Control Works
There are many different forms of birth control that you can choose from. Each one protects against pregnancy differently. It’s worth exploring your options so you can choose the method that best fits your needs.
Many forms of birth control are hormonal. They contain varying levels of estrogen and progestin which perform three basic jobs:
- They stop ovulation so there’s no egg present to fertilize.
- They thicken the cervical mucus so it would be more difficult for sperm to reach the egg if it was present.
- They change the lining of the uterus so it would be hard for a fertilized egg to attach.
It’s best to discuss your needs with your healthcare provider to determine what combination of hormones is right for your needs. You can get hormonal birth control in many forms.
- The birth control pill: The birth control pill is taken daily to prevent pregnancy. The pill is most effective when taken at the same time each day. You may find combination pills with both estrogen and progestin as well as progestin-only options. Most packs have 28 active pills and seven inactive pills taken while you get your period. Some birth control pills have a greater number of active pills so you don’t get your period as frequently.
- The birth control patch: The birth control patch is a plastic patch that adheres to the skin and releases hormones. You apply the birth control patch weekly, taking one week off when you get your period.
- The birth control ring: The birth control ring is a flexible plastic ring that’s placed inside the vagina. This releases hormones that prevent pregnancy. You leave the ring in place for three weeks, remove it for a week when you get your period, and insert a new ring.
- Contraceptive implants: The contraceptive implant is a flexible plastic rod that’s inserted under the skin of the forearm. This contains only progestin. The implant is effective for up to three years. Women using the implant often have lighter periods. Over time, they may have no periods at all.
- Birth control shot: The birth control shot is a progestin-only injection that you get every three months. It’s important to get the shot on time. Women using the birth control shot may have lighter periods or no periods at all.
- Intrauterine devices: An intrauterine device, or IUD, is a T-shaped implant that is inserted in the vagina by a healthcare provider. Hormonal IUDs release the same hormones as the other forms of birth control listed above. You can also select a non-hormonal IUD which is made from copper and plastic. The copper kills sperm. IUDs can last anywhere from three to 10 years depending on the device.
There are also non-hormonal birth control methods that reduce the chance of pregnancy. These are usually less effective than hormonal birth control.
- Male condoms: Male condoms fit over the penis and provide a latex or polyurethane barrier that stops sperm from coming into contact with the egg.
- Female condoms: Female condoms are made from polyurethane and feature two rings. One sits against the pubic bone while the other rests outside the vagina. These work similarly to male condoms by stopping sperm.
- Sponges: The contraceptive sponge is a circular device that’s placed inside the vagina over the cervix to stop sperm from reaching the egg. This is used in conjunction with a spermicidal foam that kills sperm.
- Diaphragm: A diaphragm is a reusable rubber device that’s inserted in the vagina. It sits against the cervix and stops sperm from entering. The diaphragm works best when used along with a spermicide.
How to Protect Against STIs
As mentioned previously, only male and female condoms will protect against some STIs. This is because condoms provide a barrier that prevents skin-to-skin contact and the transmission of bodily fluids. While condoms can greatly reduce the risk of contracting an STI, they are not 100% effective and do not protect against all STIs.
Condoms are most effective at preventing the transmission of HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. These STIs are spread through secretions when they come into contact with mucosal surfaces like the male urethra and the female vagina or cervix. Condoms are less effective against genital herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and syphilis. These STIs are spread through contact with the skin. While a condom reduces skin-to-skin contact, it does not eliminate it completely.
To make sure your condoms are as effective as possible, you should:
- Store them in a cool, dry place.
- Always use a new condom each time you have sex.
- Choose a product made from latex or polyurethane, not lambskin.
- Read the packaging to make sure the condom is designed to protect against disease.
- Do not use oil-based lubricants that can cause condoms to break.
- Use a condom for all forms of sex including anal or oral.
How to Know if You Have an STI
Many STIs cause few or no symptoms, so you cannot rely on noticeable signs to alert you to infection. The best way to know if you have an STI is to get tested regularly. You can use an at-home STI kit to test for many common infections including:
- Hepatitis C
Different testing is required for other STIs. For herpes, you must have your local healthcare provider swab a sore or perform a blood test. Speak with your healthcare provider to learn more about your STI risk and the best tests for your needs.
Keep in mind that proper condom use is the best and most reliable way to protect against STIs when you’re sexually active. Using a condom consistently reduces your risk significantly and keeps you safe during sex.