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About the Birth Control Sponge

What is the birth control sponge?

The contraceptive sponge, or birth control sponge, is a soft, round piece of plastic foam with a loop for removal. It’s available over the counter in many drugstores. The sponge is filled with a spermicide known as nonoxynol-9. You insert the sponge deep into your vagina before sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy.

How does it work?

The sponge works in three ways:

  1. It blocks sperm from fertilizing an egg by covering the cervix.
  2. It continually releases spermicide to kill sperm that approach the cervix.
  3. It can absorb and trap sperm.

How do I use it?

Using the sponge takes a little more time and preparation than other forms of birth control.

Call for availability
Before you head out to your drugstore, call ahead to make sure they carry the birth control sponge. While it’s widely available, not every drugstore carries it.

Insertion

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water.
  2. 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. When you squeeze it, it should be very sudsy.
  3. Fold the sponge up and away from the loop, so that it is long and narrow.
  4. Insert the sponge as deeply into your vagina as you can.
  5. Release the sponge. It will unfold and cover your cervix.
  6. Slide your finger around the edge of the sponge to make sure your cervix is covered.

You can insert the birth control sponge immediately before you have sex or up to 24 hours beforehand. You can have sex multiple times while using the sponge. However, you should not keep the sponge in for more than 30 hours, and keep in mind you must wait at least six hours after having sex to remove the sponge.

Removal

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water.
  2. Insert your fingers into your vagina and grab the loop.
  3. Gently pull out the sponge and throw it away. Do not flush your sponge down the toilet. Do not reuse a sponge.

How effective is it?

The effectiveness of the sponge depends on how well you use it and whether or not you’ve ever given birth. The failure rates are:

  • 9 percent for women who haven’t given birth and use the sponge correctly every time
  • 12 percent for women who haven’t given birth and don’t use the sponge correctly every time
  • 20 percent for women who have given birth and use the sponge correctly every time
  • 24 percent for women who have given birth 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.

Pros and cons

The sponge is a convenient form of birth control for women, but it’s not a perfect method.

thumbs up Pros:
  • It’s available without a prescription.
  • You can buy it from most drugstores.
  • You can insert it up to a day before having sex.
  • You can use it as-needed, rather than daily or monthly.
  • It doesn’t affect your hormone levels.
thumbs down Cons:
  • It’s less effective if you’ve given birth.
  • It’s unsafe to use during your period.
  • It doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — only condoms can do that.
  • The sponge or spermicide may irritate your vagina, which can increase your risk of STIs.
  • Insertion and removal can be messy or difficult.

What are the risks?

If the sponge breaks when you’re trying to remove it and you can’t get all the pieces out, you need to see your doctor. Leaving the pieces in your body may cause an infection.

You should not use the sponge if you are allergic to sulfites (a chemical found in some food and wine), the spermicide, or any of the sponge’s materials. Doing so may lead to an allergic reaction.

Signs of TSS:
  • aching muscles and joints
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • feeling faint
  • sore throat
  • sudden, high fever
  • sunburn-like rash
  • vomiting
  • weakness
If you have any of these signs while using the birth control sponge, call your doctor.

The sponge is also associated with a slightly increased risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This condition may cause fever, shock, and organ damage. To reduce your risk of TSS from the sponge, make sure to:

  • follow the package instructions for insertion and removal carefully
  • never leave the sponge in for more than 30 hours
  • avoid using the sponge entirely during menstruation or if you have vaginal bleeding

Talk to your doctor

You should talk to your doctor before using the sponge if you have recently had a birth, miscarriage, or abortion or if you think you have a pelvic infection.

The birth control sponge may be right for you, or other forms of birth control may be more suitable. Selecting a method of birth control that is right for you often comes down to finding the right balance between your personal preferences and what’s appropriate according to your medical history. Talk to your doctor about all of your options. 

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