AA: Thanks so much for writing in to ask this question. This is a very common question as there are many birth control options out there to choose from and it can be hard to navigate which is which. What works for one person may not be the best option for another; different types of contraceptives may have different risks and/or levels of efficacy when interacting with different bodies. It is important to understand yourself, your body, and the different options available to you, and to consult a medical professional.
LM: We’ll talk about several options for birth control here, starting off with some of the more widely-known ones. One of the most popular forms of birth control is the external (or male) condom. In addition to preventing pregnancy, external condoms can also protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), because they provide a physical barrier. There is also the internal (or female) condom, which is inserted into the vagina before sex. Both types of condoms are available for free at many places around Harvard’s campus. This map shows all the locations with external condoms, and internal condoms are available from the Health Promotion Office, the Women’s Center, and at SHARC office hours!
AA: Another method you may have heard of is the pill. This is a hormonal birth control method that is taken orally at the same time every day. It is important to remember that if you miss one pill you should use a backup birth control method like condoms for one week after the missed dose. The pill requires a prescription from a doctor. You can schedule an appointment with one of the doctors at HUHS through your patient portal.
LM: If the idea of having to remember to take a pill every day isn’t appealing to you, there are also various other hormonal contraceptive methods. One is the patch, which is like a Band-Aid. You have to change your patch every week. Another option is the NuvaRing, a small, flexible ring that is inserted into the vagina and left there for three weeks. Each of these methods allow you to have a period during an “off-week.”
AA: A longer term hormonal option is the Depo-Provera shot which you receive at your doctor’s office every 12 weeks. This is a good option if you are wanting a very private form of birth control, although studies do show that long-term usage of Depo-Provera may lead to bone mineral density loss. Another great option that can give you up to four years of pregnancy prevention is the implant, which is inserted under the skin of your upper arm and secretes hormones. It is effective for up to four years and the insertion is a quick procedure.
LM: The last birth control method we want to talk about is the IUD (intrauterine device), which has been getting more and more popular. An IUD is a small T-shaped device that is inserted into the uterus, and they last for several years. There are several different types of IUD; many are hormonal and last between 3-6 years, and one is made of copper (ParaGard). ParaGard can last up to 12 years, and is a great option if you’re looking for a non-hormonal contraceptive option, but it can also make periods heavier.
AA: If you’re interested in an IUD, you can talk to a clinician about the different options. The procedure to get an IUD is outpatient and can cause minor cramping. Your doctor will go over all the details with you when you are deciding if an IUD is the best option for you.
LM: To wrap things up: If you want a non-hormonal method go with condoms (either external/male or internal/female) or the ParaGard IUD. If you’re okay with taking a pill every day try out one of the many different kinds of birth control pills. If you’re interested in a hormonal method that you don’t need to remember every day, consider the patch, the ring, the shot, or the implant. It’s also important to remember that condoms are the only one of these methods which prevent STIs, so you can also use condoms in tandem with any of these other methods for an extra layer of protection.
AA: Most of the options we’ve discussed here are covered by most insurance providers. Make sure to check out Bedsider to get a much more in depth description and to help you understand which method might be best for you.
Amanda Ayers, Health Educator