What are the differences among various methods of birth control?

Are there differences between using birth control pills versus birth control patches? Are the side effects different?

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Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.
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Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.

Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D., is the founding medical director of Lifestyle 180, an innovative Cleveland Clinic program aimed at treating and... Read more

Happy 50th anniversary to the pill, which made its debut in May 1960. Since that time, oral contraception has become the No. 1 form of birth control in the United States. Since the pill’s inception, contraceptive measures have evolved beyond the pill to include injections, skin patches and vaginal administration. All are equal in terms of effectiveness and chemical composition -- a combo of estrogen and progesterone that prevent your ovaries from releasing eggs. It’s the method of delivery and convenience that differentiates one type from another.

If you know you won’t remember to take a pill every day, you can wear a patch, get a quarterly injection or insert a vaginal ring. It’s important to consider your lifestyle when choosing a method of birth control. You want to be sure you can be compliant with the method you choose so you can prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In general, the side effects of the hormone composition of each contraceptive method should be about the same. These include breakthrough bleeding, weight gain, breast tenderness and mood swings. Normally, these side effects subside within three months. Side effects based on the delivery of the contraceptive method can vary. The patch might irritate your skin and give you a rash while the injection may cause pain and sensitivity around the injection site. It really depends which method is most convenient for you, giving you the most benefit with the least amount of side effects.

Cost is also a consideration. Prices vary according to the type and brand, and one insurance company may prefer one formulation or brand to another. Be sure to check your health plan before asking your doctor for a specific prescription.

Keep in mind that any type of hormonal contraception puts you at risk for some very serious health problems, including blood clots, strokes and heart attacks. This risk is increased if you smoke cigarettes and are over the age of 35. Finally, don’t forget that none of the hormonal forms of birth control protect against sexually transmitted diseases, so have your partner use a condom as well.

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