Male birth control
Reviewed by our clinical team
In the UK, the most popular form of contraception used to be “the pill” – a catch-all term for female contraceptive (birth control) pills containing synthetic hormones.
In recent years, other forms of female contraception have risen in popularity. Long-acting reversible contraceptives like the IUD (coil), IUS, injection and the implant have become more common – in part, perhaps, because they’re seen as more convenient.
Increasingly, there have also been calls for effective male contraceptive. While male birth control is still limited to male condoms and sterilisation, research into other methods has proved promising.
What is male birth control and how does it work?
In the past two decades, a few different methods of male contraception have been developed and trialled.
Male contraceptive gel
In 2019, a year-long trial was launched amongst 80 men in Edinburgh and Manchester to study the effects of NES/T.
NES/T is a gel that contains synthetic forms of progesterone and testosterone. The progesterone “switches off” sperm production in the testicles, and lowers levels of natural testosterone – the synthetic testosterone in the gel counters the effects of this.
The gel is designed to be rubbed into the shoulders and chest every day, and absorbs quickly into the bloodstream through the skin. With correct usage it should prevent pregnancy in the vast majority of cases.
At the time of writing, the results of the trial are unknown. However, the professor leading the study, Richard Anderson, claims that the method is likely more effective than male condoms.
Male contraceptive pill
There have been a few different types of the “male pill”. An early version contained only synthetic progesterone, and required the use of an implant that releases testosterone to counter any unwanted effects.
More recently, a couple of oral contraceptive pills for men have been through early, successful trials in the United States.
One pill is called 11-beta-MNDTC and works in a similar way to NES/T gel, by blocking sperm production. In a small trial it caused the hormones required for sperm production to drop, and some men experienced side-effects such as acne, fatigue and headaches. Some men reported low sex drive and erection difficulties, but none of the participants stopped the trial due to side effects.
Male contraceptive injections
In the past, a male contraceptive injection has been trialled by the same team currently working on NES/T gel. The injection worked in a very similar way, using synthetic progesterone to halt sperm production, and synthetic testosterone to counter unwanted effects.
The injections proved highly effective, with only four pregnancies occurring among 274 couples taking part. This is similar to the efficacy of the female pill.
Unfortunately, the trial was stopped early because it was felt that the hormonal side-effects would be unacceptable for men. The side-effects included acne, headaches, fatigue and change in sex drive. How serious or severe these side-effects are viewed differently by different researchers- and the men themselves. 75% of study participants were happy to continue despite side-effects; this probably compares with women stopping hormonal contraception due to side-effects.
RISUG and the IVD
Not all male contraceptives currently in development involve hormones. Some involve a physical procedure that blocks the vas deferens, the tube that transports sperm to the urethra (the pee tube).
One method is RISUG, which stands for “reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance”. It involves injecting a non-toxic chemical into the vas deferens, which creates a block and kills sperm as they pass through. Another injection can be used to dissolve the chemical when contraception is no longer wanted or needed.
Another method involves the intra-vas device (IVD), a physical plug injected into the vas deferens to filter sperm. As with RISUG, this method can be easily reversed, in this case simply by removing the plug.
Trials are still ongoing, but this type of method is thought to be potentially very effective.
When will the male contraceptive pill be available?
Currently, the only two options for male birth control are male condoms and sterilisation (i.e. getting a vasectomy or the snip).
At the time of writing, trials are underway for various male birth control methods, but it isn’t clear when these methods will be approved and made available on the NHS. Any new medication has to be rigorously tested and trialled to make sure it is safe and effective for as many people as possible, which is why it’s taking a long time.
In the meantime, couples who want to avoid pregnancy should make sure that they are using at least one form of reliable contraception. The withdrawal method – where the penis is pulled out from the vagina before ejaculation – is not considered an effective form of birth control by the NHS .
Contraception options from Online Doctor
For women, getting hold of birth control isn’t always as convenient as it should be.
Here at Online Doctor we can help take away some of the hassle by prescribing over the internet, and making your pill, patch, or ring available for home delivery or collection from your nearest LloydsPharmacy. Find out more by visiting our online contraception clinic.