A story recently hit the headlines of a woman in Colombia using a potato as a method of contraception - which went badly wrong. According to Colombia Reports, she began to feel abdominal pain as roots were growing on the potato after two weeks, and doctors had to remove the object. She reportedly said her mother had advised her to try the contraception method.
At sexual health charity FPA we’ve never come across anyone using vegetables as contraception, but whether this story actually happened or not, we do know that people of all ages are relying on myths and misinformation to prevent pregnancy instead of finding a contraceptive method to suit them.
We take a look at some commons myths, and why it's so important to understand the facts:
MYTH: If your partner withdraws before he ejaculates you won’t get pregnant
There’s been a lot in the news recently about the so-called withdrawal method. But having a partner pull out before he comes is NOT a method of contraception and leaves women at risk of pregnancy. This is because it’s still possible for a sexually excited man to release fluid from his penis even without having an orgasm. This is known as pre-ejaculation fluid or pre-cum and, as it has sperm in it, it can lead to pregnancy.
MYTH: The only contraception choices are condoms or the pill
Although these two methods are still the most well know there are actually 15 methods of contraception available in the UK, all free through the NHS. Sadly, there are still only two choices for men (the male condom and sterilisation), although research into both the male pill and male contraceptive injection is ongoing. Women have a choice of 13 methods, including four methods of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) which they don’t need to remember to take or use every day or every time they have sex.
MYTH: You can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up
We still hear this one a lot. Sperm are very strong swimmers and gravity alone is not going to stop them reaching and trying to fertilise an egg! If you don’t use contraception then it’s possible for a woman to get pregnant whatever position you were having sex in.
MYTH: You can’t get pregnant if you have sex during your period
Many women think that they’re only fertile for a few days each month, and so they believe they can’t get pregnant during their period and throughout most of their menstrual cycle. There are two factors that make this a myth. Firstly, many women have irregular menstrual cycles so it can be very hard to know for sure ovulation (when an egg is released) has taken place. Secondly, sperm can actually live in the body for up to 7 days so they can be hanging around ready and waiting to fertilise an egg.
MYTH: You can’t get pregnant if it’s the first time you have sex
This persistent myth is still out there and leading to unplanned pregnancies. If egg meets sperm then it’s possible to get pregnant, whether it’s the first, tenth or thousandth time you’ve had sex.
MYTH: Two condoms are safer than one
Although you might think that an extra layer will offer you extra protection, this isn’t true, and using two condoms actually increases the risk of them splitting or breaking. A male condom used correctly is 98% effective at preventing pregnancy and a female condoms used correctly is 95% effective.
MYTH: You can’t get pregnant if you go to the loo or douche straight after sex
Going to the loo or douching (washing the inner and outer female genitals) won’t help to prevent a pregnancy. Again, this is down to sperm being fantastic swimmers. By the time a woman has got to the loo, or started to have a wash, the sperm are already well on their way and this isn’t going to stop them.
MYTH: It’s OK to re-use a condom if you haven’t got a new one
This isn’t safe – condoms (both male and female) are designed to be used once only, so don’t attempt to wash them out and use them again.
MYTH: You can’t get pregnant if you’re breastfeeding
Many unplanned pregnancies happen in the first few months after childbirth and one of the reasons is that there’s a lot of misinformation around breastfeeding and contraception. It’s not impossible to use breastfeeding as a contraception method if the baby is under 6 months old and if a number of other conditions are met (see here), but many women won’t meet all the conditions and so women should never assume that just because they’re breastfeeding they won’t get pregnant after unprotected sex – it's much safer to get contraception sorted.
MYTH: Fertility disappears overnight once you hit 35
Despite what you might hear, women’s fertility doesn’t suddenly drop off a cliff once they hit 35. It does decline, but it’s a gradual process and it will differ from woman to woman. Many women conceive well into their 40s so it’s only safe to assume a woman can’t get pregnant once she’s been through the menopause.
MYTH: Contraception makes you put on weight
It’s still a persistent myth that women taking the pill or using another form of hormonal contraception will gain weight. We don’t know of any research that shows the pill or most other types of contraception to be associated with weight gain. There is one type of contraceptive injection (Depo-Provera) that may be associated with an increase in weight in some women – any women considering the injection as their method who are concerned about this should talk to a healthcare professional about it.
MYTH: You need to take a break from the pill every so often
There’s no need to take a break from the pill because the hormones don’t build up. We think this myth still persists because in the earlier days of the pill, when less research had been done into its effects, women were often told they should stop using it for a while. But there are no known benefits to a woman’s health or fertility from taking a break.
MYTH: Emergency contraception HAS to be used “the morning after” unprotected sex
The worrying thing about this myth is that it might stop couples seeking emergency contraception when they need it. Emergency contraception is often known as the “morning after pill” – but it’s not a very helpful or accurate term. Not only are there three different methods of emergency contraception (and only two of them are pills!) but none of them have to be used within 24 hours, or by the “morning after” to be effective.
The emergency pill Levonelle is effective up to three days after unprotected sex (but is more effective the earlier it is taken). The emergency pill ellaOne and the emergency IUD are effective up to five days after unprotected sex. Emergency contraception is available for free from GPs that provide contraception services, contraception and sexual health clinics and young people's services. Women aged 16 and over can also buy Levonelle from most pharmacies and ellaOne from some pharmacies. See www.fpa.org.uk/emergency for more information.
MYTH: You can use body lotion on condoms if you don't have any lube handy
Although it's tempting to grab the nearest thing from the bathroom cabinet when you need more lubrication, oil-based products – such as body oils, creams, lotions and petroleum jelly – don't mix well with latex condoms. They can damage the latex and make the condom more likely to split – result, no contraceptive protection. You can check the condom packaging to find out if it's made from latex or polyurethane but if you're not sure, don't risk it.
MYTH: Long-term use of contraception can make a woman infertile
This is completely untrue. Once women stop using contraception their periods and fertility will return to normal. Depending on the method that was used and a woman’s individual cycle this may be straight away or it may take a while. The exceptions is sterilisation. Both women and men can be sterilised – and it’s a permanent method of contraception for people who are sure they don’t want to have children in the future. Sterilisation can sometimes be reversed but not always.
To find out more about which methods of contraception might suit you and your lifestyle, try My Contraception Tool at www.fpa.org.uk/mycontraceptiontool
Natika H Halil is Director of Health and Wellbeing at FPA
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