Contraception is the use of hormones, devices or surgery to prevent a woman from becoming pregnant. It allows women to choose when and if they want to have a baby.
The condom is the only type of contraception that also protects men and women from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
There are several types of contraception which work in different ways.
- Male and female condoms create a physical barrier against sperm.
- Hormonal methods for women, such as the contraceptive pill, prevent the release of an egg from the ovaries and change the environment of the womb to prevent pregnancy.
- Contraceptive devices, such as the IUD (intrauterine device), are placed in the womb and prevent pregnancy by releasing copper or hormones into the body.
Before recommending a contraceptive, your GP will assess your age, medical history and sex life. Some contraceptives have possible side effects and it is important to consider these when deciding what sort of protection to use.
The combined oral contraceptive pill
The combined oral contraceptive pill is usually just called the pill. It contains synthetic (artificial) versions of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone. The pill prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg each month (ovulation).
Not everyone can use the combined oral contraceptive pill. You will need to talk to your doctor or nurse about your medical history.
Condoms are a form of barrier contraception. They prevent pregnancy by stopping sperm from reaching an egg. Condoms can also help to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Out of date condoms should not be used.
Both male and female condoms are available in Ireland and are suitable for most people. The male condom fits over a man's erect penis. The female condom is put into the vagina and loosely lines it.
The contraceptive patch is a small, thin, beige patch about 5cm by 5cm in size. You stick it onto your skin and it releases two hormones - oestrogen and progestogen - through your skin and into your bloodstream. The patch needs to be changed for a new one each week. Every fourth week, you have a patch-free week when you have a withdrawal bleed, like a period. Not everyone can use the patch, so it is important to see a doctor or nurse to make sure it is suitable for you.
Contraceptive implants and injections are long-acting methods of contraception. They work in the same way, by slowly releasing a hormone called progestogen into your body.
- The implant (for example Implanon) is a small (4cm), thin flexible tube implanted under the skin of your upper arm. Implanon works for up to three years before it needs to be replaced.
- The contraceptive injection is given into a muscle. Depo-Provera is the most commonly used injection and is effective for up to 12 weeks, after which another injection is given.
Intrauterine Device (IUD)
An Intrauterine Device (IUD) is a small, T-shaped contraceptive device made from plastic or copper that fits inside the womb (uterus). It used to be called a coil or a loop. IUDs need to be fitted by a trained doctor or nurse. They can stay in the womb for five to 10 years depending on the type.
You should not use an IUD if you have:
- any untreated sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pelvic infection,
- problems with your womb or cervix, or
- any unexplained bleeding from your vagina, for example between periods or after sex.
Women who have had an ectopic pregnancy or recent abortion, or who have an artificial heart valve, must consult their GP before having an IUD fitted.
A vaginal ring is a flexible ring that releases female hormones – oestrogen and progestogen – which are absorbed from your vagina and into your blood. This will stop ovulation just like the pill. You put it into your vagina for three weeks every month to help prevent pregnancy. The vaginal ring is not suitable for you if you smoke, are obese or over 35 years of age.