Watching sex scenes in movies and on TV, birth control or condoms are rarely discussed — and unless the movie is a Lifetime network drama, pregnancy or STDs are practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, this is just on TV. In reality, these not-so-pleasant occurrences are becoming more common in society, especially among college students.
According to Planned Parenthood, 2,800 people under the age of 20 in the United States will become pregnant every day, and one in five college students will develop an STD of some kind. The former would significantly interfere with one's ability to successfully complete their education, and the latter is embarrassing, painful and potentially life threatening. Accordingly, it is crucial to protect yourself if you do choose to be sexually active.
The pill (oral contraception made with hormones) is the most popular reversible method in the United States. It comes in two forms: combination (estrogen and progestin) or progestin only. It is easy to use and extremely effective (98-99 percent) — however, it must be taken at the same time every day, so if the user is forgetful, a backup method should be used to ensure maximum protection. It also does not have any protection against STDs. Alternative hormonal contraceptives include the patch (in which the hormones are transferred into the bloodstream) and the ring.
While some may be hesitant to go on the pill because of rumored weight gain or other side effects, Kathleen Stine, Planned Parenthood of Western Washington's director of clinician services, said this is largely a myth, and that the pill's benefits greatly outweigh the side effects.
"All pills will help with things like acne and irregular cycles, and can even help with symptoms of PMS," Stine said. "Some women seem to have a little more problems with mood swings depending on progestin in the pill formula that they're on, but changing to a different formula of progestin can help. The research is becoming more insistent that birth control pills do not cause weight gain. There is some stimulation of appetite during the first three months that comes from the same sources, such as breast tenderness, nausea and water weight gain, but after that it is really not an issue. The only physiological weight gain is water weight and bloating."
Stine added that she believes the ring is an excellent method and a viable alternative to the pill.
"I think the ring has really moved up the ladder," Stine said. "I think this is because of the convenience of its monthly usage — women are realizing how nice this is. It also has very few side effects."
Condoms are the most available and affordable over-the-counter method, and the only one which protects against HIV and other STDs. They come in many different kinds: with lubrication and without, in many different flavors and shapes, and also with the option of spermicidal lubricant which provides further protection against pregnancy. Stine said she and the clinicians at Planned Parenthood always stress the importance of their use to patients, and give away free condoms at all of their clinics.
"We always recommend that women use condoms for safer sex," Stine said. "If you're not in a sexually monogamous situation, it is crucial, and even if you are there is no method which is 100 percent. We try to emphasize this from the beginning. After that, it's up to the woman and her partner."
When used perfectly, condoms are 98 percent effective — that is, consistently and perfectly, every single time. However, with typical usage (not perfect), they only provide an 85 percent rate of efficiency. Therefore, for maximum protection, it is wise to use an additional method such as the pill.
Although one may have the best intentions, mistakes often happen — the condom breaks, a pill is forgotten, etc. When this happens, it is important to take the morning-after pill, a form of emergency contraception which is 89 percent effective in preventing pregnancy within 72 hours of unprotected sex. It is a high-dose birth control pill, and contrary to popular myth, it is not an abortion pill. It works by stopping ovulation or preventing fertilization.
Plan B — the most common brand of emergency contraception — is available at all drug stores, and at Hall Health and Planned Parenthood. It is available upon request without prescription those 18 or older, but minors need a medical evaluation before it can be released. At Planned Parenthood, Stine said the clinics often give women an extra pack or two to keep at home in case of emergencies.
"That way they don't have to go through the hassle of getting to a drug store, especially if it's closed on weekends or holidays," she said.
Cost may often be an important factor when it comes to selecting a birth control method, but it doesn't need to be. There are ample resources designed to help young adults shoulder the cost of birth control methods. For example, Planned Parenthood's Take Charge program is designed for low-income women, or teen girls who do not want to use their parent's insurance because of confidentiality issues. The program is based on an income assessment, and provides treatment on a sliding scale basis — anywhere from free to whatever the patient can afford.
In addition to birth control, the Take Charge program offers a variety of important services, such as annual exams, pregnancy testing, abortion and adoption counseling, and STD screening.
Reach reporter Katie Stapleton-Paff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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