The Pill: What Is It & How Does It Work
The birth control pills (or simply “the pill”) is a hormonal contraceptive that’s taken orally to prevent pregnancy. The pills are packed with hormones like estrogen, progestin, or both.
These hormones work to prevent ovulation. If you aren’t ovulating, you can’t get pregnant. It also helps thicken your cervical mucus to prevent sperm from coming into the uterus.
The pills usually come in a pack of either 21 or 28 pills. In the case of the former, you take one pill every day and have a one-week “break” before starting your next pack. In the case of the latter, there are only 21 active pills and 7 placebo pills so that you still get the 7-day rest.
With perfect use (i.e. no missed pills, taken as instructed), the pill is 99% effective at preventing pregnancy. But because people often forget to take their pills, the typical effectiveness is at 91%.
Common Contraceptive Pills
- Minipill: progesterone-only pills
- Diane 35: combination estrogen and progestin
- Althea pills: combination estrogen and progestin
When To Start The Pill & Other FAQs
Do I need to consult a doctor to take the pill?
While most birth control pills are available over-the-counter, we still recommend that you see a doctor before taking BCP or any other type of hormonal birth control. An obstetrician-gynecologist will look at your medical history and determine which brand could be a good choice for you.
When should I start taking the pill?
Generally, you should start using birth control before you engage in any sexual activity that could get you pregnant. Your doctor might also recommend that you use the pill to help manage polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS, a condition where you produce more male hormones than you should.
How do I take the pill?
Always follow the instructions on the pack, whether it’s a 21-pill pack (once a day for 21 days, then a 7-day break) or a 28-pill pack (active pills once a day for 21 days, then placebo pills once a day for 7 days). Take the pill at around the same time every day, as missing a pill can significantly decrease its effectiveness.
Are there any contraceptive pills that don’t have side effects?
Every brand of birth control pills will have potential side effects, but that doesn’t mean you as an individual will experience them. In fact, tons of women on the pill don’t experience any side effects at all!
The great thing about BCP is that you have a lot of options. If one brand has too many side effects, you can switch to another. You should also consider progesterone pills (a.k.a. without estrogen), which is associated with fewer side effects.
Is the morning after pill the same as a contraceptive pill?
Emergency contraceptives like the I-pill or the morning after pill technically use similar hormones (i.e. levonorgestrel) as birth control pills. But they have them in much larger amounts – and that means, of course, more side effects.
Emergency contraceptives should never be taken like birth control; as the name implies, it should only be used rarely, in cases of emergency, like if your original contraception failed.
Does taking the pill mean I don’t have to use condoms?
While the pill is pretty effective on its own at preventing pregnancy, it does not protect you from any kind of sexually transmitted infection. We still recommend that you and your partner use condoms to avoid contracting any STIs.
Short & Long-Term Side Effects Of The Pill
On birth control, your breasts might feel a little bit sore or tender. Thankfully, this side effect usually goes away in a few weeks or months.
Just like with periods, many women report feeling bloated on the pill due to increased water retention.
You might experience fluctuations in your body weight, especially since some BCP may increase your appetite.
Studies have found that a significant portion of pill-takers experience migraines or headaches within the first few weeks of a new pill.
Queasiness and the feeling of needing to vomit are normal side effects of the pill. You can mitigate this by taking your pill with some food.
It’s no surprise that messing with your hormones can mess up your mood, too. If you have depression, anxiety, or any other mood issues, be sure to consult a doctor before taking BCP.
Spotting is when you bleed a little in between periods. On the other end of the spectrum, skipping your period on the pill is also one of its side effects.
Some brands like Yasmin have been linked to a higher risk of developing blood clots. But this shouldn’t be a huge issue if you and your doctor work together to monitor the situation.
Some pills may lower your sex drive due to the change in hormones, but much of the decreased libido can also be a result of the other side effects, like feeling bloated or sore.
Of course, contraceptive pills have good side effects too like less intense cramps, lighter periods, clearer skin, a lower risk of serious infections and cancers, and the big one – little to no risk of pregnancy. And despite the potential side effects, tons of women still choose birth control pills as their main form of contraception because it’s affordable, accessible, and incredibly effective.
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