With the invention of birth control pills in the 1960s, women suddenly had unprecedented control over their reproductive schedules. Today, many couples are opting to delay starting a family, and some are ruling out parenthood completely.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the type of birth control you choose depends on your lifestyle and needs. Although no method is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, here are some important factors to consider when selecting birth control:

  • Do you plan on having children someday?
  • How often do you have sexual intercourse?
  • How much effort will the method take?
  • How effective is it?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Will it protect against infection as well?

Types of Birth Control
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are a variety of effective birth control options; some are available over the counter while others can only be obtained through a physician.

No Prescription Needed
These forms of birth control can be purchased at a store or pharmacy. While most people will experience little to no side effects, some may have allergic reactions.

>Male Condoms. Most condoms are made from latex rubber, but some are made from lamb intestines and are often called lambskins. If you aren't allergic to latex, it's recommended that you use latex condoms because they're very effective at preventing pregnancy--and they're also best at protecting against AIDS, herpes, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Female Condoms. Approved by the FDA in 1993, female condoms are made of polyurethane and nitrile, making them less likely than latex to cause an allergic reaction. They're designed to completely line the vagina, can be inserted up to eight hours prior to intercourse, and if used correctly, can help prevent STDs and pregnancy. That said, female condoms have shown higher failure rates in preventing pregnancy than non-barrier methods such as birth control pills.

Spermicide. Available without a prescription in drugstores, spermicides contain a chemical that kills sperm. Spermicides are sold in several forms, including foam, cream, and jelly. Spermicide is placed into the vagina at least 10 minutes before sexual intercourse. One dose usually works for one hour, but you must use another dose every time you have intercourse even if less than an hour has passed. Some people may find that they are sensitive or even allergic to spermicide.
Plan B. Referred to as emergency contraception, Plan B is a backup method for preventing pregnancy and is not recommended for routine use. Approved by the FDA, it stops the release of an egg from the ovary--and may also prevent the egg from being fertilized. In order to be most effective, though, it must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, and side effects many include nausea, fatigue, breast tenderness, and menstrual cycle changes. Plan B does not protect against HIV infection and other STDs.

By Prescription Only
The following methods of birth control are not available over the counter--you must obtain a prescription from your physician. They may also come with some side effects.

Birth Control Pills. A doctor's prescription is needed for birth control pills, also called oral contraceptives. There are two types of birth control pills: combined oral contraceptives and mini-pills. Combined oral contraceptives have a combination of two hormones--estrogen and progestin. They work by keeping the ovaries from releasing an egg. The pill must be taken every day. Mini-pills contain only one hormone, progestin. They work by thickening the cervical mucus to keep sperm from reaching the egg. Some birth control pills now enable women to have as few as four menstrual periods a year. Most women who take birth control pills have very few side effects. However, some may experience irregular menstrual bleeding, nausea, weight gain, and mood swings. In very rare cases, blood clots can develop, although this is more common in women over 35 who smoke.

Diaphragm. A diaphragm with spermicide is inserted into the vagina prior to sexual intercourse so that it covers the cervix, or "neck" of the womb. A woman must be fitted for a diaphragm at a doctor's office or clinic because diaphragms come in several different sizes.

Cervical Cap.
The cervical cap is a soft rubber cup with a round rim that is inserted into the vagina to fit over the cervix. The cap is smaller than the diaphragm, but is sometimes more difficult to insert. Like a diaphragm, a woman must be fitted for a cervical cap at a doctor's office or clinic.

Depo-Provera. Depo-Provera is a form of progestin, similar to the hormone in the minipill. A doctor must inject Depo-Provera with a needle into the woman's buttocks or arm muscle. In order for the birth control to continue to work, a woman must receive an injection every three months. Side effects may include headaches, weight gain, and mood swings. For some women, fertility returns immediately after they stop using Depo-Provera. For others, it may take 18 months, or even longer, for the body's hormone cycle to go back to normal.

IUDs. An IUD (Intra-Uterine Device) is inserted into the uterus by a doctor. Two types of IUDs are now used in the United States: the Paragard Copper T 380A, which releases copper, and the Progestasert Progesterone T, which releases progesterone, a form of progestin. The Paragard IUD can stay in place for 10 years, while the Progestasert must be replaced every year by a doctor. An IUD can be taken out at any time by a physician. If it is removed near ovulation, a woman may become pregnant from recent intercourse prior to IUD removal.