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While you are probably all familiar with what a condom is, did you know there are a lot of other options out there for preventing pregnancy? Learn about some of the barrier methods of contraception in this lesson.

What Is Contraception?

Now you may remember those awkward conversations with your parents about the birds and the bees or those middle- or high-school health classes where they took out the banana and tried to show you how to put a condom on it, all with the goal or aim of introducing you to the concept known as ‘safe sex.’ But really it probably just made everyone feel awkward or never look at bananas the same way again!Well, today we’re going to talk about safe sex, but hopefully without all the awkwardness you felt in middle or high school.

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So, what is safe sex? Well, simply put, it just means being aware of some of the methods of what the general public terms ‘protection’ but what we will call ‘contraceptives.”Contraceptives’ refers broadly to the category of methods that can be used to manage fertility or prevent conception, the fusion of the female’s egg with the male’s sperm, which, as you all should already know, can lead to pregnancy.Now, many, but not all, of these methods also help reduce the transmission of STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases.

So even if preventing pregnancy isn’t a top priority for you, hopefully preventing the spread of STDs is.So, anybody know how many different types of contraceptives there are? Any guesses? Well, you should all be familiar with the most popular two: condoms and birth control pills.But there are actually a lot more options out there, not to mention all the different types of birth control pills. Contraceptives can be divided up into a couple different categories. Most of your contraceptives are also reversible.Reversible contraception means that when you stop using the contraceptive, fertility – or the ability to get pregnant – returns.

These include two main categories: barrier methods and hormonal methods.And they work just like their names suggest! Barrier methods create, well, barriers, and hormonal methods use – you guessed it – hormones!

Barrier Methods of Contraception

In this lesson, we’re going to focus on the first one: barrier methods of contraception. All of the methods in this category focus on physically preventing the sperm from coming into contact with the egg, thus preventing fertilization and pregnancy through the use of some kind of barrier.These methods are also the types of contraceptives that can help reduce (but not necessarily prevent) the transmission of STDs.

Why? Well, because STDs travel in the fluids of both the male and female reproductive tracts, and barrier contraceptives help prevent fluid exchange between the male and the female.

Male and Female Condoms

First up, and most popular: the male condom – you know, from all those Trojan Man commercials. Now, these come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and even flavors.

Did you know there are chocolate condoms and even condoms that glow in the dark? Talk about variety!The condom is, simply put, a thin covering for the male’s penis to prevent semen from coming into contact with the female’s reproductive tract. They are thin and usually made of a material called latex. However, there are non-latex condoms available because some people are allergic to latex.For males, this covering goes over the head of the penis and down the penile shaft. It is designed with a pocket at the top that collects the male’s semen as it leaves the penis, thus preventing the semen from entering the female’s reproductive tract. Not only does this prevent the sperm from entering the female, but it also helps prevent diseases as well.

There are also female condoms available, which work similar to male condoms but cover the inside of the female’s vaginal canal and cervix. This way the fluid from the male doesn’t come into contact with the female reproductive tract. The advantage of female condoms is that they can be inserted hours before intercourse.

However, they require some practice to ensure proper fit and use. So it’s always a good idea to consult a physician who can tell you whether or not you are using them correctly.So how effective are condoms? I mean, nothing is really 100%, right? Well, that’s correct. Both male and female condoms, and most forms of contraceptives, are never 100% foolproof.Both male and female condoms are one of the best methods to help prevent STD transmission, but protection still isn’t quite 100%.

You see, the effectiveness often depends on the proper use of the condom, or any type of contraceptive. Care should be taken to put the condom on properly and to check it ahead of time for any tears that might allow semen to leak through. The failure rate of most condoms with regards to pregnancy is pretty low, about 2%, meaning that with correct use, they are around 98% effective.

Diaphragm

While males are currently limited to using condoms as their form of contraceptive, women, on the other hand, have tons of options, both barrier and hormonal. The most popular barrier method for women is known as the diaphragm. Why is it called a diaphragm? Well, if you’re familiar at all with anatomy, the diaphragm is a large muscle that helps your lungs breathe. Both have that dome or bowl-shape look to them, and both are flexible.

The female diaphragm we are talking about is a dome-shaped cup made of latex or similar material that is inserted into the vaginal canal of the female and covers the cervix. The cervix is the opening that separates the vaginal canal from the uterus. In order for sperm to make it to the egg, they have to get through the cervix.

Think of it as the doorway to the female’s reproductive system. Therefore, the goal of the diaphragm is to prevent this by blocking the cervix.So how does one go about using a diaphragm? And how effective are they? Well, just like condoms, their effectiveness depends on proper use. To ensure a proper fit, diaphragms are only available by prescription and must be fitted by a physician to make sure they are the correct size.

If you think of a diaphragm like a bowl, the inside of the bowl should be coated with a spermicide, or lubricant that kills sperm, and then inserted first, so that it covers the cervix.They also have to be left in place for around six hours after intercourse so that the spermicide has time to kill the sperm. This helps increase their effectiveness, which, compared to male condoms, is a little less, with a failure rate between 6% and 16%, depending on how experienced the woman is at using one.

The main causes of failure are improper fit, inconsistent use, incorrect insertion, or slippage during intercourse.

Contraceptive Sponge

Now, if you’re a little hesitant about obtaining a prescription for something like a diaphragm, you can always look into something called a contraceptive sponge. This option offers about the same amount of protection against pregnancy as the other barrier methods and partial protection against STDs.So, what is it? Well, it is just like it sounds: a small, absorbent sponge that fits into the vaginal canal and covers the cervix.

It contains a high dose of spermicide to kill the sperm. However, this can cause allergic reactions or irritation in some women. Just like the female condom, though, the sponge can only be used once and must be discarded afterwards.And, before we move onto a quick review, you should all be aware that all of the female barrier options carry an increased risk of something called toxic shock syndrome or TSS.

You have probably heard of this before because it’s also associated with the use of tampons.TSS is a bacterial disease that can be contracted if something like a tampon, diaphragm, sponge or other device is left inside the vaginal canal for an extended period of time. Symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Headaches and fainting
  • Nausea and dizziness
  • Cough and sore throat
  • A sense of confusion

And, because both diaphragms and sponges only cover the cervix, they leave the rest of the vaginal canal exposed to the male’s semen. While this may not matter with regards to pregnancy, it does mean they offer less protection against STDs than condoms do.

Lesson Summary

Now, there are a few other barrier methods out there, but we covered the main types available (and the more popular ones). Let’s take a quick moment to review them.

All barrier methods of contraception focus on physically preventing the sperm from coming into contact with the egg, thus preventing fertilization and pregnancy through the use of some kind of barrier. They are also reversible, meaning that fertility (or the ability to get pregnant) is restored after the method is removed.The most common barrier methods are male and female condoms. These are a thin latex or similar material that prevents physical contact between the male’s penis and the female’s vaginal canal, thus preventing the exchange of fluid by capturing the male’s semen before it can come into contact with the female.Diaphragms are reusable, dome-shaped, female contraceptive devices that cover the cervix to prevent sperm entry – kind of like a hat or cap.

These need to be fitted properly by a physician to ensure proper use and effectiveness.Contraceptive sponges are disposable, absorbent sponges soaked with a spermicide to kill sperm before it can enter the cervix.All of these options also offer partial protection against the transmission of STDs, and while effective, none are 100% foolproof, so care should be taken to use them properly.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • List some of the barrier contraceptive methods available
  • Discuss the pros and cons of the different barrier methods
  • Describe TSS and how it is connected to barrier contraceptives

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