Birth Control and Contraception for Teenagers

What is birth control?

‘Birth control’ is a term that describes things that stop a woman or girl from becoming pregnant, or giving birth. Birth control can mean a wide range of things – from ‘contraceptives’ (used to reduce the chances of a woman becoming pregnant) to other ways of avoiding pregnancy, like not having sex.

Making decisions about sex and birth control

If you don’t want to have a baby, there are two main options – either don’t have sex, or if you are going to have sex, use contraception.

What is meant by ‘having sex’?

Well, here we’re talking about having sexual intercourse, where a man inserts his penis into a woman’s vagina. There are other forms of having sex – like oral sex, for instance – but the only one that’s likely to get a girl pregnant is sexual intercourse.

You might be thinking ‘yeah ok, I already know that girls get pregnant through sexual intercourse’. But are you sure that you really know the facts about pregnancy? There are a lot of myths out there. Despite what you may have heard, a girl can become pregnant:

  • The first time she has sexual intercourse.
  • Even if she has sex before she’s had her first period.
  • Even if she has sex during her period.
  • Even if a boy pulls out (withdraws his penis) before he comes.
  • Even if she has sex standing up.
  • Even if she forgets to take her pill for just one day.

Take our pregnancy quiz to make sure that you really know what causes a girl to get pregnant!

Not having sex

The only 100% effective way to avoid having a baby is to not have sexual intercourse. Abstinence is the most effective method of birth control, and many young people around the world choose this option. For some, this means not having sex until they’re married. For others, it can mean different things, like waiting until they’ve found a stable partner who they feel comfortable with. You need to decide what’s best for you personally – don’t feel pressured into having sex just because others are. It’s important to feel that you’re ready before you start having sex.

Some people believe that you shouldn’t start having sex until you’re married, and that even then, you should only have sex if you want to have a baby. For instance, this is generally what Catholics believe. Other religious groups (and some people who aren’t religious) also believe in abstinence until marriage, but many think that once you are married, it’s ok to use birth control if you still don’t want a baby.

A lot of people, on the other hand, don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having sexual intercourse when you don’t want a baby, and many don’t believe that you have to be married, or even in a serious relationship, before you start having sex. You should think about what you personally believe about this issue.

Having sex and using contraception

As much as abstinence is the right route for some people, a lot of teens don’t want to wait to have sex until they’re ready to have a baby. Puberty brings with it a lot of sexual feelings, and many choose to have sex for the first time during their teenage years. If you do choose to have sex (and you should only have sex when you’re sure that you’re ready), just make sure that you use contraception. There are a lot of contraception options, and you should choose one that suits you and your relationship.

Abortion (termination of pregnancy)

Some women and girls don’t want to have a baby, but become pregnant because they’ve had sex without using contraception, or because the contraception that they’ve used has failed for some reason. In these situations, women may decide to have an abortion. This is where a woman becomes pregnant, but the embryo or fetus (unborn baby) is removed, stopping pregnancy.

As with birth control in general, there are many different arguments about whether abortion is right or wrong, and whether it should be allowed. In many countries it’s illegal. Some feel that women should always have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to stop their pregnancy or not, while others argue that it’s wrong to stop a baby being born, as this is taking away a human life. Whatever you feel about abortion, remember that it’s a serious procedure that carries both mental and physical risks for a woman. No one should ever have unprotected sex simply thinking ‘well, if pregnancy happens, we’ll just sort out an abortion’, because an abortion is an incredibly serious, life-changing operation.


Are there many different methods of contraception?

Yes. Contraceptives work by preventing a man’s sperm from fertilising a woman’s egg, and this can be done in several different ways.

There are two main types of contraception: barrier methods and hormonal methods. Barrier methods physically prevent sperm from swimming into the uterus and fertilising the woman’s egg. Hormonal methods, on the other hand, alter a woman’s hormonal cycle to prevent fertilisation. These are the only types of contraception that are generally used by teenagers.

Other types of contraception which are generally not used by young people include the intrauterine device (IUD) or intrauterine system (IUS), which is usually not recommended for young women who have not had children; natural methods such as only having sex at certain times of the month, which are often not effective enough; and sterilization, which is a permanent surgical procedure.

How do you know which one to choose?

Different methods of contraception have their individual advantages and disadvantages. There’s no single ‘best’ method of contraception, so you have to decide which is most suitable for you. Whatever your situation, there should be a contraception option that works for you. For many people, barrier methods of contraception are best, because they not only prevent pregnancy, but also prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases being passed on during sex.

Where do you get contraceptives from?

It depends which type of contraceptive you’re looking for. Barrier methods such as condoms and spermicides are widely available from pharmacies and other shops in many countries. They’re also available from many healthcare providers. Other barrier methods, such as the IUD, are only available from doctors, and all hormonal methods of contraception are only available on prescription from doctors. You can buy some contraceptives online.

Barrier methods of contraception

There are three main barrier methods of contraception used by teens: the male condom, the female condom and spermicides in the form of foams or gels.

The male condom

The male condom is the only method of contraception that boys can use. It’s really just a rubber tube. It’s closed at one end like the finger of a glove so that when a boy puts it over his penis it stops the sperm going inside a girl’s body. An advantage of using male condoms is that a boy can take an active part in using contraception – it’s not just left to the girl.

The female condom

The female condom is a fairly new barrier method. It is not as widely available as the male condom and it is more expensive. It is however very useful when the man either will not, or cannot, use a male condom. It’s like a male condom, except it’s bigger and worn inside the vagina.

It’s a good idea to try to practise with condoms before having sex. You can get used to touching them, and it might help you feel more confident about using them when you do have sex.


Spermicides are chemical agents that both kill sperm and stop sperm from travelling up into the cervix (the lower part of the uterus, or womb, where babies develop). Spermicide comes in different forms including the sponge, vaginal pessaries (which melt in the v

agina), gels and foam (which is squirted into the vagina using an aerosol). Young people who use spermicide mostly choose foam.

Spermicides are not very effective against pregnancy when used on their own, but are very effective if used at the same times as a male condom. When used together, the male condom and spermicide can be a great combination for effectively protecting against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.

Some condoms are also available with a spermicide (Nonoxynol 9) added. A spermicidal lubricant 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 that can actually make the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections more likely. Nonoxynol 9 is only a suitable spermicide for a woman who is HIV-negative, and whose partner does not have HIV either. It should only be used for vaginal sex.

Hormonal methods of contraception

There are two main types of hormonal contraceptive which can be used by teens: the contraceptive pill, and the injectable hormonal contraceptive. If used properly, both are extremely effective in providing protection against pregnancy – but they provide no protection at all against sexually transmitted diseases. For very good protection against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, a hormonal method should be used at the same time as the male condom. In some countries, contraceptive patches (that stick to the skin) and rings (that go inside the vagina) are also available.

The contraceptive pill (sometimes known as the birth control pill)

  • What does ‘going on the pill’ mean?  People often talk about being ‘on the pill’. This means they are using the oral contraceptive pill as a method of contraception. This has nothing to do with oral sex, and just means that the contraceptive is in pill form which is taken orally (swallowed).
  • How does it work?
    The pill contains chemicals called hormones. One type of pill called ‘the combined pill’ has two hormones called Oestrogen and Progestogen. The combined pill stops the release of an egg every month – but doesn’t stop periods. 

    The other type of pill only has Progestogen in it. It works by altering the mucous lining of the vagina to make it thicker. The sperm cannot then get through, and as the sperm can’t meet the egg, the girl can’t get pregnant.

  • What do you do?  Usually a girl has to take one pill every day for about three weeks. She then takes a break for seven days while she has her period, before starting the cycle again (or instead, she may take ‘sugar’ pills for those seven days, i.e. pills that don’t actually have any affect, but which are taken purely so she keeps in the routine) for seven days.It’s very important not to forget to take these pills. If this happens, protection against pregnancy is lost. The Progestogen-only pill also has to be taken at the same time every day.
  • How effective is the pill?  It’s a very effective method of contraception. If the pill is taken exactly according to the instructions, the chance of pregnancy occurring is practically nil. A disadvantage of the pill is that it does not provide any protection against STDs. For very good protection against both pregnancy and STDs, the birth control pill should be used at the same time as the male condom. 

Injectable Hormonal Contraceptive

  • How do you use it? How does it work?The most popular form of this type of contraception, Depo-Provera, involves the girl having an injection once every twelve weeks. The injection is of the hormone Progestogen. The injection works in the same way in the body as the Progestogen only pill, but has the advantage that you do not have to remember to take a pill every day. It does however have the same disadvantage as the hormonal pill, in that it provides no protection against STDs. 

The morning after pill

If a girl has had unprotected sex, but doesn’t want to have a baby, one option is ‘the morning after pill’ – an emergency contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy, when taken after sex. The name is actually a little bit misleading, as it doesn’t necessarily have to be taken ‘the morning after’ – it can work up to 72 hours after you’ve had sex. However, it’s most effective when taken within 24 hours of sex, and the sooner you take it, the better. In a lot of countries you can get the morning after pill for free, as a prescription from your doctor or healthcare provider. In some – including the U.S. and the U.K – you can also buy it over the counter at pharmacies.

Although the morning after pill can be an effective way to avoid pregnancy if you have had unprotected sex, you shouldn’t rely on it, or use it regularly. It’s not as effective as other methods of contraception, and can have side effects. What’s more, it won’t protect you from HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.