Health

9 important things to know about birth control

Sept. 25, 2012, 3:05 p.m.

A pregnancy test. A recent survey found that among woman who 1) can get pregnant, 2) are not trying to get pregnant and 3) don't use contraception, about two-thirds believe they can't get pregnant. (David Verdugo/Flickr Creative Commons)


Unsure about how birth control works or what your pregnancy risk is? You're far from alone.

The Contraception in America study recently found that among women who 1) can get pregnant and 2) are not trying to get pregnant, more than 40 percent don't use contraception; of those women, nearly two-thirds don't believe they're at risk. Overall, the study revealed major knowledge gaps about the most effective birth control methods and a tendency of women to underestimate their pregnancy risk.

That's not too difficult to believe, given that data released in July says one in three U.S. births is "unintended."

Serena Josel, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, cleared up some common misconceptions regarding contraception for OnCentral:

On who's at risk for an unplanned pregnancy:

Pretty much every woman. With the exception of women who are clinically infertile, Josel says sexually active women "from every walk of life" face the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy, and that the risk "really impacts women who may not have access to a regular health provider."

The cost of having a primary care provider and/or insurance acts as a "real barrier" for a lot of women, added Josel.

On whether a teenage girl or women can get pregnant the first time they have sex:

Yes.

On the effectiveness of and pregnancy risks involved with short-term contraception:

Short-term birth control refers to contraceptive methods like the pill, condoms, the patch, the ring and shots.

This kind of birth control "can be very effective at preventing unintended pregnancy if they're used consistently and correctly," said Josel, but that may be more difficult for some women than it is for others for a variety of reasons, including lifestyle and schedule.

On whether the pull-out method – in which a male pulls out just before ejaculating – is effective:

No.

On the effectiveness of and pregnancy risks involved with long-term contraception:

Long-term contraception refers to methods like intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants. "These methods have higher rates of effectiveness because the risk of user error is greatly reduced," said Josel. Once it's placed in a woman's body by a medical professional, she can forget about it for up to 10 years.

With these methods, "there's no need to worry about taking your pill at the same time every day, or replacing your patch or your ring," she said.

On whether birth control is guaranteed to work:

It's not. "Abstinence is the only 100-percent effective way to at preventing unintended pregnancy or sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), but birth control methods can greatly reduce your risk if they're used consistently and correctly," said Josel.

Part of making that happen is being in communication with a health provider, who can properly teach a person how to use birth control.

On how emergency contraception works:

"Emergency contraception is basically just a high dose of regular hormonal birth control pills that can prevent unintended pregnancy after unprotected sex," she said. "And it's a really great option for women who experience contraceptive failure," meaning a broken condom or a forgotten pill.

It works up to 120 hours after sex, so women who have any doubt about whether their birth control worked should consult a health professional about emergency contraception as soon as possible.

On the relationship between birth control and the prevention of sexually-transmitted disease:

Josel said the country is seeing rates of teen pregnancy fall – but the same isn't happening with STD rates. 

Hormonal methods – the pill, the patch, IUDs – don't prevent the spreading of STDs. Only condoms can do that. Your best bet? Use both.

On how birth control affects a woman's ability to have children later in life:

"By and large a woman's fertility will return to normal usually rather quickly after she stops taking hormonal birth control or after she has her IUD implant removed," she said.

Josel cited statistics that showed about half of all women get pregnant within three months of going off the pill.

Knowledge doesn't mean much without access, though, and Josel previously told OnCentral that plenty of people in South Los Angeles still lack access to birth control.

Planned Parenthood is just one of many resources for folks who have questions about birth control or need to obtain it. The organization doesn't turn people away if they're uninsured or can't afford it.

Local community health clinics are also sensitive to patients who are uninsured or unable to pay for care, and will be able to help or refer people with questions or contraceptive needs.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in Los Angeles on Saturday that allows women to obtain birth control without seeing a doctor. It takes effect January 1.

Photo by David Verdugo via Flickr Creative Commons.

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