Sexually active couples may use birth control methods to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The decision to prevent pregnancy can arise from personal situations or medical conditions. Over-the-counter birth control is available without a prescription in stores.
Over-the-counter birth control methods prevent the sperm from fertilizing an egg. Some methods are more convenient or acceptable to the couple than others. Cost, availability, and side effects may influence the couple's decision. A healthcare professional can help a couple decide which method is right for them.
Condoms, or synthetic sheaths, are available for men and women.
Male condoms cover the penis to prevent semen from being deposited within the vagina. They also create a barrier and thus reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of catching some (but not all) sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as HIV.
Female condoms cover the external genitals and the walls of the vagina.
The failure rate is 3% to 14% for male condoms and 5% to 21% for female condoms.
Condoms are more effective for pregnancy prevention when they are used together with spermicides, the diaphragm and/or the cervical cap. However, condoms lubricated with spermicides are no more effective than other lubricated condoms in protecting against the transmission of HIV and other STIs.
Vaginal spermicides are chemicals that kill the sperm in the vagina. They are applied using jellies, foams, creams, films, or suppositories. Spermicides have a high failure rate of about 5% to 24%.
The main risk of over-the-counter birth control methods is their failure rate. They do not work as well as prescription birth control methods, or even modern, natural family planning (also called fertility awareness).
Occasionally, one of the partners may have an allergic reaction to spermicide or condoms.