Additional Sources for Effectiveness Ratings and Use:
The What, the Why, the Where, the When, and the How-to: An IUD (intrauterine device) -- sometimes also called an IUS or IUC -- is a small device which is inserted into the uterus, through the vagina and cervix by a sexual healthcare provider, and which remains in the uterus until removed. Believe it or not, it's still a bit of a mystery as to how and why IUDs work, but we know for a fact and through a lot of study and use that they DO work, and are incredibly effective.
Basically, an IUD gives sperm the message that there's no vacancy in the uterus, so there's no sense in them trying to find an egg to shack up with in there: IUDs interfere with sperm mobility and egg fertilization. The copper in the Copper-T IUD is also believed to act as a sort of natural spermicide, and the hormone in the Mirena IUD also thins the lining of the uterus, and thickens cervical mucus, both adding a backup means of protection.
With either kind of IUD, it is not something partners will feel during sex, and those with an IUD in their uterus should not feel them either. Either kind does have a small string which dangles slightly out of the cervical opening so that you can check it's still in there every now and then (one risk of IUDs is that they may/can expel themselves), and cramping in the first few months of having one inserted is normal, but once your body gets used to the device, you should not feel it. IUDs are very easily reversible -- you just have them removed -- and while expensive at the outset (usually anywhere from $150 - $600 when insurance will not cover them), over years of use is the most inexpensive form of birth control there is.
The Copper-T is immediately effective after inserted. No backup method is needed to prevent pregnancy after insertion. The Mirena may also be effective immediately after insertion so long as it was inserted during a menstrual period. Otherwise, women will need to use a backup method for the first week.
There are two types of IUDs: the Mirena IUD, a device with hormones, and the Copper-T or Paraguard IUD, a device without hormones. There are a couple critical differences between them.
For ANY woman using any IUD, you're going to need to be okay with a few basic things:
If you have never been pregnant before -- whether you had a child or terminated a pregnancy -- your healthcare provider may not advise an IUD because the size of your uterus is can make insertion or wear more uncomfortable -- though usually only slightly -- and does put you at a slightly higher risk of your body expelling the device. Those issues don't present dangers, just possiblye extra discomfort, or the inconvenience of paying a lot for a method only to have it not work for you, or to have to pay for it again and have it inserted again if it expels.
Not having been pregnant before also does not mean you can't have an IUD or it isn't safe for you to have an IUD. Some providers also will not advise an IUD for women with high risks of STIs, such as those not in mutually monogamous relationships.
The newest research shows that in the first few weeks after insertion of an IUD, women are more susceptible to developing an STI and possible complications from an STI. High risks of sexually transmitted infections do present a real danger, since having a device in your uterus can potentially make any infection more serious and increase the risks of PID, particularly, again, around the time of insertion of an IUD.
So, it's important to be honest with yourself about your STI risks when considering an IUD, particularly in the first month or so after insertion. If you know that you can be sure to back up with condoms and be assertive with partners about doing so, you're good. Or, if you are as sure as anyone can be that you are in a mutually monogamous, long-term relationship where you both have screened clear for infections, okie-dokie.Otherwise, it might be better to consider a different method.
Too, because of concerns with uterine size and higher risks of infections, some healthcare providers will not okay any or some younger women for IUDs. If your provider will not give you an IUD simply because of your age or because you have not been pregnant before, you can likely find another provider who will if you shop around.
You might hear your mother or grandmother voicing deep concern about IUDs, but that's because back in the day in the 70's, a different kind of IUD than we have now, the Dalkon Shield, resulted in over 300,000 lawsuits from women who were harmed due to septic spontaneous abortion (miscarriage complicated by a profound bacterial infection) -- some even died -- by the device, largely due to highly irresponsible actions and lack of study on the part of the manufacturer. As well, the kinds of warnings we have now in terms of infection dangers, and awareness and carefulness on the part of doctors inserting the device when it comes to infection concerns, was not paramount as it is now. The IUDs we have today have been rigorously tested -- especially due to what happened with the Dalkon -- and have been widely proven to be safe when given to women who really are good candidates for the IUD.
The Copper-T IUD -- which is non-hormonal -- is a small, T-shaped piece of plastic which is wrapped with copper. It can remain in the uterus for as long as twelve years, but can be removed at any time, whether that's because a woman wants to become pregnant, or because she wants to switch to another method. Women who have allergies or sensitivities to any part of the Mirena IUD, or to levonorgestrel, women with any cardiovascular issues, women who want a method which can be left in pace for as many as twelve years, or women who want to avoid any hormones, or be sure they still get periods every month may find the Copper-T to be their best choice.
The Mirena IUD -- which is hormonal -- is also a small, T-shaped piece of plastic, but it is not wrapped with Copper, and also contains small amounts of levonorgestrel, a non-estrogen hormone (so it's an okay choice for women who cannot or do not want to use estrogen). That hormone both adds some backup protection, and also helps prevent a typical side effect of the Copper-T, which is longer, heavier or more painful periods. Most women using Mirena have shorter, lighter periods and some may stop having periods altogether, which some see as a bonus and others are not comfortable with. The Mirena can be left in place for half as long as the Copper-T: for up to five years. Women who want lighter, shorter periods, the possible absence of periods (but accept spotting may still occur erratically), or who have allergies to copper may find the Mirena to be their best choice.
Some more links about the IUD expressly for younger women:
Or, click on the tag for IUD for a larger list.
When Good Birth Control Does Bad Things: The main reason IUDs fail for women is if and when the device falls out or expels without a woman noticing, though this is rare. That's why checking that little string regularly is important. As well, if and when pregnancies do occur for IUDs users, they are more likely to be ectopic, which can be life-threatening, so it's also important to call your doctor if, when using an IUD, you ever have serious or constant abdominal or pelvic pain (and that also goes for possible PID), unusual bleeding (even more so than you might have with an IUD), or if you're just really not feeling well for a while.
You can use any other non-hormonal method as a backup with an IUD, but there really is no need to, given how highly effective it is. However, because of the extra risks of STIs, backing up with condoms to protect your health is something we advise.
Other methods you might like if you like the IUD:
Why would an IUD be a good option for me? If any of the following are true:
For a very brief overview of all BC methods, have a look at Margaret Sanger's Disneyland: Choosing Contraceptives.
Don't forget: Statistically, sexually active young adults are as, if not more, likely to acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) as you are to become pregnant. Although 15-24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of the sexually active population, they account for nearly half of all new STIs each year, and of the 18.9 million new cases of STIs each year, 9.1 million (48%) occur among 15-24-year-olds (AGI). Often people have some funny ideas about who is most likely to get an STI, but the fact of the matter is that younger people -- of any sexual orientation, any economic class, any kind of relationship -- have been the highest risk group for some time now.
Condoms are the only method of birth control which also provide protection against STIs. It's pretty typical for younger people to ditch condoms if they have another method of birth control, so just remember that STIs are still a risk if you're using another method. You can read all about safer sex here -- Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-To -- but the rule of thumb most medical experts and prevention organizations suggest, which we also encourage at Scarleteen is six months of safer sex, six months of sexual monogamy, and then TWO full STI screenings for each partner -- once at the start of that six months, once at the end -- before ditching latex barriers.