The Only Birth Control Guide You'll Ever Need

Welcome to The V, our weeklong series devoted to all things sex and reproductive health. This is a safe space free from "taboos," because there's no reason women should feel awkward talking about their bodies. That said, we'll be clearing up any misinformation on the subject, starting with this huge misnomer: The "V" in this case doesn't refer to the vagina, but the vulva, which is the anatomically correct term for external female genitalia (including the opening of the vagina). Stay tuned all week for need-to-know guides on birth control, tips for taking your orgasm to the next level, real-life stories about endometriosis, and everything in between.

What birth control should I take?
Photo: Original Illustration by Lauren Johnstone

So you don't want to get pregnant. Understandable. But what next? "There are so many options for women today when it comes to birth control," says gynecologist and SweetSpot Labs expert Jessica Shepherd, MD. "And they can be taken many ways—by mouth, inserted into the vagina, placed in the uterine cavity, injected, and more."

According to Shepherd, all birth control methods work by doing one of two things: Either by "medically altering the ovulation pattern" or by "mechanically preventing sperm from entering the uterus." Some forms of birth control are super temporary (like condoms), some are less temporary (like the pill), and some are long-term (like the IUD). The latter two are called "short-acting" and "long-acting" reversible contraception, respectively. These are the methods we're focusing on today.

For the record, there are a few other kinds of birth control that we won't be covering at length here: These include permanent methods like sterilization, where a doctor surgically closes a woman's fallopian tubes. There are also fertility awareness–based methods, which have you track your ovulation to avoid having sex during your most fertile days. For those who don't mind the obvious risks, there's also withdrawal (or the pull-out method). And then there's always abstinence.

But this guide is dedicated to immediate, short-acting, and long-term birth control. To make the best choice in your personal quest for pregnancy-free sex, you'll want to consult your doctor. But in the meantime, we spoke to three great women's health experts: Shepherd; Sara Twogood, MD, an ob-gyn at USC; and Trish McMorrow, MSN, a board-certified family nurse practitioner and clinical educator at Progyny. Whether you're already on birth control and want to make a switch, or are considering it for the first time, keep reading to figure out which birth control method is right for you.

Brief disclaimer on STIs: If they're not mentioned below, then the method does not protect against them.

Curious about side effects? Next up, read about the birth control side effects every well-informed woman should know.

This story was originally published on March 17, 2017.