Apr 6, 2014
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A means of avoiding pregnancy despite sexual activity. There is no ideal contraceptive, and the choice of method depends on balancing considerations of safety, effectiveness and acceptability. The best choice for any couple will depend on their ages and personal circumstances and may well vary with time. Contraceptive techniques can be classified in various ways, but one of the most useful is into ‘barrier’ and ‘non-barrier’ methods.

Barrier methods These involve a physical barrier which prevents sperm (see SPERMATOZOON) from reaching the cervix (see CERVIX UTERI). Barrier methods reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases, and the sheath is the best protection against HIV infection (see AIDS/HIV) for sexually active people. The efficiency of barrier methods is improved if they are used in conjunction with a spermicidal foam or jelly, but care is needed to ensure that the preparation chosen does not damage the rubber barrier or cause an allergic reaction in the users. CONDOM OR SHEATH This is the most commonly used barrier contraceptive. It consists of a rubber sheath which is placed over the erect penis before intromission and removed after ejaculation. The failure rate, if properly used, is about 4 per cent. DIAPHRAGM OR CAP A rubber dome that is inserted into the vagina before intercourse and fits snugly over the cervix. It should be used with an appropriate spermicide and is removed six hours after intercourse. A woman must be measured to ensure that she is supplied with the correct size of diaphragm, and the fit should be checked annually or after more than about 7 lbs. change in weight. The failure rate, if properly used, is about 2 per cent.

Non-barrier methods These do not provide a physical barrier between sperm and cervix and so do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. COITUS INTERRUPTUS This involves the man’s withdrawing his penis from the vagina before ejaculation. Because some sperm may leak before full ejaculation, the method is not very reliable. SAFE PERIOD This involves avoiding intercourse around the time when the woman ovulates and is at risk of pregnancy. The safe times can be predicted using temperature charts to identify the rise in temperature before ovulation, or by careful assessment of the quality of the cervical mucus. This method works best if the woman has regular menstrual cycles. If used carefully it can be very effective but requires a highly disciplined couple to succeed. It is approved by the Catholic church.


These are supposed to prevent pregnancy by killing sperm before they reach the cervix, but they are unreliable and should be used only in conjunction with a barrier method.

INTRAUTERINE CONTRACEPTIVE DEVICE (COIL) This is a small metal or plastic shape, placed inside the uterus, which prevents pregnancy by disrupting implantation. Some people regard it as a form of abortion, so it is not acceptable to all religious groups. There is a risk of pelvic infection and eventual infertility in women who have used coils, and in many countries their use has declined substantially. Coils must be inserted by a specially trained health worker, but once in place they permit intercourse at any time with no prior planning. Increased pain and bleeding may be caused during menstruation. If severe, such symptoms may indicate that the coil is incorrectly sited, and that its position should be checked. HORMONAL METHODS Steroid hormones have dominated contraceptive developments during the past 40 years, with more than 200 million women worldwide taking or having taken ‘the pill’. In the past 20 years, new developments have included modifying existing methods and devising more effective ways of delivering the drugs, such as implants and hormone-releasing devices in the uterus. Established hormonal contraception includes the combined oestrogen and progesterone and progesterone-only contraceptive pills, as well as longer-acting depot preparations. They modify the woman’s hormonal environment and prevent pregnancy by disrupting various stages of the menstrual cycle, especially ovulation. The combined oestrogen and progesterone pills are very effective and are the most popular form of contraception. Biphasic and triphasic pills contain different quantities of oestrogen and progesterone taken in two or three phases of the menstrual cycle. A wide range of preparations is available and the British National Formulary contains details of the commonly used varieties.

The main side-effect is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The lowest possible dose of oestrogen should be used, and many preparations are phasic, with the dose of oestrogen varying with the time of the cycle. The progesterone-only, or ‘mini’, pill does not contain any oestrogen and must be taken at the same time every day. It is not as effective as the combined pill, but failure rates of less than 1-per-100 woman years can be achieved. It has few serious side-effects, but may cause menstrual irregularities. It is suitable for use by mothers who are breast feeding.

Depot preparations include intramuscular injections, subcutaneous implants, and intravaginal rings. They are useful in cases where the woman cannot be relied on to take a pill regularly but needs effective contraception. Their main side-effect is their prolonged action, which means that users cannot suddenly decide that they would like to become pregnant. Skin patches containing a contraceptive that is absorbed through the skin have recently been launched.

HORMONAL CONTRACEPTION FOR MEN There is a growing demand by men worldwide for hormonal contraception. Development of a ‘male pill’, however, has been slow because of the potentially dangerous side-effects of using high doses of TESTOSTERONE (the male hormone) to suppress spermatogenesis. Progress in research to develop a suitable ANDROGEN-based combination product is promising, including the possibility of long-term STEROID implants. STERILISATION See also STERILISATION – Reproductive sterilisation. The operation is easier and safer to perform on men than on women. Although sterilisation can sometimes be reversed, this cannot be guaranteed and couples should be counselled in advance that the method is irreversible. There is a small but definite failure rate with sterilisation, and this should also be made clear before the operation is performed. POSTCOITAL CONTRACEPTION Also known as emergency contraception or the ‘morning after pill’, postcoital contraception can be effected by two different hormonal methods. Levonorgesterol (a synthetic hormone similar to the natural female sex hormone PROGESTERONE) can be used alone, with one pill being taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, but preferably as soon as possible, and a second one 12 hours after the first. Alternatively, a combined preparation comprising ETHINYLESTRADIOL and levonorgesterol can be taken, also within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. The single constituent pill has fewer side-effects than the combined version. Neither version should be taken by women with severe liver disease or acute PORPHYRIAS, but the ethinylestradiol/levonorgesterol combination is unsuitable for women with a history of THROMBOSIS.

In the UK the law allows women over the age of 16 to buy the morning-after pill ‘over the counter’ from a registered pharmacist.

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Medical Dictionary

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