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What is Contraception?

Contraception means Birth control. These are things you can do to ensure that pregnancy only happens if and when you want it to.

Birth control can mean abstinence. Abstinence is deciding not to do something, so abstaining from having sexual intercourse will ensure that pregnancy does not occur. Abstinence can work for some people, although others may struggle especially in the heat of the moment.

Birth control can also mean using a method of contraception to ensure that pregnancy does not occur when you do have sexual intercourse.

What causes a girl to become pregnant?

Having sexual intercourse ... when a hard or erect penis goes inside a vagina - or even just touches the outside of her vagina ... is what can lead to pregnancy.

Usually between the ages of 12 and 16, boys’ bodies go through a period of change that will enable them to begin to produce semen which carries sperm. Semen is a fluid that comes out of the penis as a male has sex and sperm is what causes pregnancy.

For girls the body begins to change between the ages of 9 and 15, a girl begins to have menstrual periods. This means that the ovaries have begun to produce eggs. An egg is released every month. If an egg meets with sperm they can become a baby. If it does not meet up with sperm it dies. Then it leaves the body in the blood which comes out through the vagina during a girl's period this usually occurs every month.

If a male and a female have sex and do not use contraception, then the female could become pregnant. A girl can become pregnant:

  • even if she has sex standing up
  • before her first period
  • the first time she has sex
  • even if she has sex during her period
  • even if a boy pulls out (or withdraws) before he ejaculates (this is when semen comes out of his penis)
  • if she forgets to take her pill.
  • If you have sexual intercourse pregnancy can be prevented by using a reliable method of contraception.

Where do you get contraceptives from?

There are a number of different methods of contraception all of which have advantages and disadvantages. Working out which method of contraception is most suitable should be a matter of personal choice and what best fits your lifestyle, however the health professionals will be happy to discuss options with you. All forms of contraception work by trying prevent the sperm from meeting an egg and fertilizing it. This can be achieved in various ways.
Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC)

These are contraceptive methods that do not depend on you remembering to take or use them. Please click on the links for more information.
Contraceptive implant

Please click for your guide to long-acting reversible contraception (LARC)

Hormonal methods

Hormonal methods of contraception contain oestrogen and progesterone or progesterone alone.
Combined pill
Contraceptive patch
Contraceptive vaginal ring

Barrier methods
Barrier methods of contraception prevent sperm from meeting an egg.

Diaphragms and caps

The barrier methods of contraception are the only form of contraception that, if used properly every time, provides protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV, Chlamydia or Syphilis.


Spermicides are chemical agents that keep sperm from travelling up into the cervix. Spermicide comes in different forms including the sponge, vaginal pessaries which melt in the vagina, and foam which is squirted into the vagina from an aerosol. It is usually spermicide in the form of foam which is used by young people.

Spermicides are not very effective against pregnancy when used on their own, but they can be used at the same time as the male condom which is then very effective. The male condom and spermicide when used together, is a good combination for providing effective protection against both pregnancy and STIs and HIV/AIDS.

Some condoms are also available with a spermicide (Nonoxynol 9) added. A spermicidal lubricant also aims to provide an additional level of protection if some semen happens to leak out of the condom. This can help to reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, but regular use of Nonoxynol 9 can cause an allergic reaction in some people resulting in little sores which can actually make the transmission of HIV more likely. Nonoxynol 9 is a suitable spermicide only for women who are HIV-negative and are at low risk of exposure to HIV or other STIs and only for vaginal sex

Permanent methods

Male and female sterilisation are permanent methods of contraception, suitable for people who are sure they never want children or do not want more children.

Is contraception free and where can I go to get it?

You can obtain free contraception, including emergency contraception, from:

  • a your GP surgery, unless they say they don’t provide contraception services
  • a contraception clinic or a sexual health clinic
  • a young people’s service (these will have an upper age limit)
  • some genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics

You can also get the emergency contraceptive pill free from:

  • most NHS walk-in centre’s and minor injuries units
  • some hospital accident and emergency departments (phone first to check)
  • some pharmacies (there may be an age limit).
  • If you are 16 or over you can buy the emergency contraceptive pill Levonelle from most pharmacies.

Do I have to be 16 to use contraception?

No. If you are under 16 you can get confidential advice and contraception. Health workers (nurses, doctors and pharmacists) work under very specific guidance with this age group. You must be mature enough to understand the advice and any decisions made about giving you contraception.

How can I find a contraception service?

  • Find out about all sexual health services from Sexual Health Direct, the helpline run by FPA.
  • Find details of general practices and pharmacies in England at In England and Wales you can also call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47
  • Get details of your nearest contraception, GUM or sexual health clinic from a telephone directory, health centre, local pharmacy, hospital, midwife, health visitor or advice centre.
  • Get details of young people’s services from Brook on 0808 802 1234.