Birth Control Sponge

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 9, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Patricia Geraghty MSN, WHNP, FNP-BC on July 9, 2014

Birth Control Sponge

The sponge was first introduced to the public in 1994. It quickly became a very popular form of birth control. It was even made famous by an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine questioned if her partners were “sponge-worthy.” Since that time, the sponge has fluctuated in availability and popularity. However, it is a reasonably effective birth control method with a faithful following.

What Is the Contraceptive Sponge?

The contraceptive sponge is a soft, round piece of plastic foam with a handle attached. It is filled with the spermicide known as nonoxynol-9 (N-9). The sponge is inserted deep into the vagina before intercourse.

How Does the Contraceptive Sponge Work?

The sponge works in two ways. First, it physically blocks sperm from fertilizing an egg by covering the cervix. It also continually releases spermicide to kill sperm.

How Do I Use the Contraceptive Sponge?

The birth control sponge is available over the counter. You can find it at drugstores or health care centers. To use the sponge:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Wet the sponge with clean water and squeeze it to activate the spermicide. The sponge should be wet all the way through, but not dripping.
  • Fold the sponge up and away from the loop, so that it is long and narrow.
  • Insert the sponge as deeply into your vagina as you can.
  • Release the sponge. It will unfold and cover the cervix.
  • The birth control sponge can be inserted immediately or up to 24 hours before sex. You must wait at least six hours before removing the sponge after sex. This gives the spermicide time to immobilize any sperm that are present. However, you should not keep the sponge in for more than 30 hours.

To remove the sponge:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Insert your fingers into your vagina and grab the loop.
  • Pull out the sponge, and throw it away.

Do not flush your sponge down the toilet. Do not reuse a sponge.

Effectiveness of the Contraceptive Sponge

The efficacy of the sponge depends on how well you use it and whether or not you’ve given birth. According to Planned Parenthood, the failure rate is:

  • nine percent for women who haven’t had children and use the sponge correctly every time
  • 12 percent for women who haven’t had children but don’t use the sponge correctly every time
  • 20 percent for women who have had children and use the sponge correctly every time
  • 24 percent for women who have had children and don’t use the sponge correctly every time

To improve the effectiveness of the sponge, ask your partner to pull out before ejaculating. He can also use a condom as added protection.

Benefits of the Contraceptive Sponge

The sponge is a very convenient form of birth control for women. Benefits of the sponge include:

  • affordability
  • wide availability
  • ability to place it before sex
  • no effect on hormones

Disadvantages of the Contraceptive Sponge

The sponge also has a number of disadvantages, including:

  • low efficacy for women who have given birth
  • being unsafe for use during your period
  • providing no protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • possibly increasing STI risk, because of exposure to N-9
  • possible irritation from the sponge or N-9
  • messiness
  • difficult removal, for some women

If the sponge breaks when you are trying to remove it, and you can’t get all the pieces, you need to visit a doctor. Left in place, there is a risk of infection.

Risks of the Contraceptive Sponge

The sponge is associated with a slightly increased risk for toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This condition causes fever, shock, and potential organ damage. This risk can be reduced by following the instructions on the sponge. You should never leave the sponge in for more than 30 hours. You should not use it if you have any vaginal bleeding.

If you have any signs of TSS, call your doctor. Signs of TSS include:

  • aching muscles and joints
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • feeling faint
  • sore throat
  • sudden high fever
  • sunburn-type rash
  • throwing up
  • weakness

In addition, the sponge should not be used if you:

  • are allergic to sulfa drugs or any of the sponge components
  • have recently had a birth, miscarriage, or abortion
  • might have a pelvic infection
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