Poop, Earwax and Copper: Birth Control Then and Now

Birth control has been with us since at least 1850 BC, when ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians were using honey, acacia leaves and lint (yes lint!) to prevent fertilization. For thousands of years, in different societies, plants, outright poisons such as mercury and lead, and unusual substances such as mule’s earwax, crocodile poop and even wooden blocks (ouch) were used as birth control.

Thankfully (still thinking about that wooden block) today, people who can get pregnant have a vast array of safe, effective birth control methods. Christina and Dr. Garritano explain four of the most common options here.

Birth Control Pill - The Pill

First marketed in 1957, Enovid wasn’t originally meant to suppress ovulation, but to regulate menstrual cycles. When women discovered it prevented pregnancy, it became popular, with a half million women using it within two years. Unlike in 1957, today’s pills come in many different combinations and formulations of hormones, including progestin-only options.

Hormones in birth control pills stop ovulation, thicken mucus and thin the uterus lining to prevent pregnancy. When taken correctly, The Pill is 99% effective against pregnancy but doesn’t prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Birth control pills can also help make periods lighter and more regular. They may also help reduce symptoms caused by gynecologic and hormonal conditions such as PCOS, recurrent ovarian cysts, PMS, endometriosis and hormonal acne.

You may experience breast tenderness, headaches, moodiness, nausea or spotting. In rare cases, women may experience blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, heart attack or stroke.

Intrauterine Device - IUD

The first instance of an IUD was in 1909 in Germany, a ring made of silkworm gut. By 1920, this was replaced by a coiled ring made of copper, nickel and zinc. The Dalkon Shield was used by millions of women in the 1970s and then quickly fell out of favor because of complications.

Today, some IUDs contain copper which prevents sperm and egg from meeting. Other IUDs work by emitting progestin. IUDs can work for 5-10 years depending on type and brand. IUDs are over 99% effective when properly placed but do not prevent STDs.

While the copper IUD does not contain hormones, some women experience heavier bleeding and more menstrual pain with this method. During the first month of placement only, women may be at risk for pelvic inflammatory disease. While rare, your body may expel your IUD without you noticing.

Condom - Rubber

Condoms use began over 5,000 years ago to prevent sexually transmitted diseases; pregnancy prevention happened to be a fortunate side effect. Goat, sheep and fish bladders and intestines, linens and silk paper were used until Charles Goodyear invented rubber vulcanization. By 1860, condoms were being mass produced at low prices, with the intention to prevent both disease and pregnancy. Condoms may also be called raincoats, balloons and sheaths.

A condom is a tubal balloon that prevents semen and other fluids from entering the vagina, rectum or mouth. There are external condoms worn on the penis and internal condoms, worn inside the vagina. Only one type of condom should be used during sexual activity, as they can stick together, tear or shift. Rigorous, conscientious use of condoms in good condition are 82-98% effective in preventing pregnancy.

If you or your partner are allergic to latex, look for polyurethane or lambskin to avoid uncomfortable reactions.  Latex condoms will dramatically reduce the risk of STDs; non-latex condoms, particularly lambskin, will not provide the same level of STD protection. Condoms are available without a prescription and many health centers distribute them for free.

Fertility Awareness - Rhythm method

Whether for religious reasons or concern about side effects, Fertility Awareness is a natural family planning method that helps you predict when ovulation will happen so you can avoid unprotected sex while your body is fertile.

Successful fertility awareness methods require tracking multiple factors. Women will track their menstrual cycle, monitor the quantity and consistency of cervical mucus and track small changes in their basal body temperature. This is taken with a basal body thermometer immediately upon waking from a full night’s sleep before there is any exertion or activity, even sitting up in bed. You’ll also watch for subtle changes in the texture and position of the cervix itself.

The rhythm method is about 76% effective when used rigidly, with motivation and diligence. Fertility awareness does not prevent sexually transmitted disease.

While there are few side effects and almost no cost, the rhythm method is not for everyone. Fertility awareness requires having a regular period and a regular sleep schedule. It may take several months and monitoring and practice before ovulation can be tracked accurately. 

Through science and technology, people who are able to get pregnant are now able to choose from so many options for reproductive decisions. In next month’s message, we’ll discuss additional birth control options, including vaginal rings, implants, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and patches.

If you have questions about your own birth control method, or would like to explore a different option, just call our office at 203-409-2539. Dr. Garritano and Christina will be happy to thoroughly answer your questions!

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