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What is contraception?

Live life on your terms by managing your menstrual cycle and preventing unplanned pregnancies

The introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the 1960s gave women control over their reproductive health. Now, easy access to multiple contraception types allows you to choose the perfect birth control solution to fit your lifestyle and situation.

You might find that you have changing contraception needs as you pass through different stages of life. Understanding which forms of birth control are available, and the benefits and drawbacks of each one means your choice of contraception can change and adapt with you.

How does contraception work?

A healthy, fertile woman’s body releases an egg from an ovary once a month. The egg travels down a fallopian tube towards the womb, and, if fertilised by sperm, the egg implants onto the wall of the womb, resulting in pregnancy.

Contraception prevents pregnancy by interrupting or changing this natural process.

Some contraceptive methods block sperm from entering the cervix and making their way to the egg, while others affect the fertility hormones in the woman’s body to stop the ovaries releasing an egg each month, or by creating an environment where a fertilised egg cannot grow.

Which types of contraception are available?

Some contraceptives, like condoms and the pill, rely upon correct use every single time to be effective. Others, like the implant or injection, work on their own once administered. Methods that work by themselves can be more reliable at preventing pregnancy because they reduce the chance of missed doses or incorrect use.

Contraceptive methods that rely on correct use every time

  • Oral pill
  • Condoms
  • Diaphragm or cap with spermicide

Contraceptive methods that work by themselves once administered

  • Implant
  • IUD/Coil
  • Injection
  • Patches

Oral contraceptive pill

The oral contraceptive pill comes in two forms, one with estrogen and one without.

Combined pill

The combined pill, often referred to as ‘the pill’ replicates the effects of the natural hormones estrogen and progesterone, to initiate your body’s response, stopping your ovaries from releasing any more eggs.

The combined pill contains a form of estrogen, as well as a synthetic version of progesterone called progestogen.

You usually take the pill at the same time every day for three weeks followed by a one-week break, during which you will experience a bleed, similar to a period. However, there are many choices of combinations with various administration and dosing schedules that you could consider to fit your lifestyle.

The combined pill can cause side effects including nausea, breast tenderness, mood changes and irregular bleeding. Some rare but serious side effects include the risk of blood clots or cancer.

Although there is a perception that taking the pill can cause weight gain, studies have shown that you might not experience this side effect, depending on which combination pill you choose and how your body responds to it.

Progestogen-only pill

The progestogen-only pill, often called the ‘minipill’ contains only synthetic progesterone, making it suitable for women who can’t take estrogen.

There are two types of progestogen-only pill. Both types thicken the mucus in your cervix to stop sperm passing through, and one can also stop your ovaries from releasing eggs.

Side effects can include breast tenderness, nausea, acne, and headaches.

Both the combined pill and the progestogen-only pill need to be taken reliably at around the same time every day to be effective.

Birth control patches

The contraceptive patch sticks to your skin and slowly releases estrogen and progestogen into your body. You only need to remember to change the patch once a week, which you may find easier than remembering to take a pill every day.

Your doctor will consider any associated health risks before prescribing this type of birth control.

Intrauterine Device (IUD/Coil)

Intrauterine means inside the uterus or womb. An intrauterine device, (sometimes called a coil), is made of plastic and copper. A doctor or nurse fits the IUD by passing it through the vagina and cervix and into the uterus. The copper changes the environment in your cervix so that sperm cannot pass through to meet the egg. Some IUDs can stay in place for up to 10 years.

Intrauterine System (IUS)

An intrauterine system (IUS) is a type of coil that releases hormones into the uterus to prevent eggs being fertilised or implanting into the womb. A doctor or nurse fits an IUS by passing it through the vagina and cervix, into the uterus, where it can stay for up to five years. It contains progestogen, so is suitable for women who cannot take estrogen.


A condom is a barrier method of contraception, meaning that it creates a physical barrier that stops sperm from travelling into the cervix. It fits onto an erect penis and traps the sperm to stop it entering the woman’s body. Condoms also protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). For condoms to be effective, you must use them correctly every time you have sex. If the condom comes off or tears during sex, you are at risk of becoming pregnant and will need to access emergency contraception if you want to stop this happening.

Diaphragm or cap with spermicide

The diaphragm, or cap, is a barrier method of contraception. It works by blocking the entrance to the cervix so that sperm cannot pass to meet an egg. Diaphragms are most effective when used with spermicide, which is a cream or gel that kills sperm. Diaphragms do not protect you from STIs.


The contraceptive implant is a small flexible device placed underneath the skin of the upper arm. It contains a progestogen hormone that creates an unwelcome environment for sperm and stops your body from releasing an egg. Once the implant is in place, you don’t need to remember to do anything more until the time comes to have it removed. Possible side effects of the contraceptive implant include acne, headaches, nausea, and mood changes. You may also find that your periods become irregular or stop altogether.

Contraceptive injection

The contraceptive injection is given every 2-3 months and contains progestogen, a hormone that stops your body from releasing an egg every month. It’s a very effective birth control method and is suitable for women who cannot take estrogen. To get the full contraceptive effect, you must remember to get your repeat injections when they are due. The contraceptive injection does not protect against STIs.