• Learning About Birth Control Pills

    rerun image Although women are grateful for this relatively simple and reliable form of contraception, most of them readily admit that they don't know much about how oral contraceptives actually work.

    So Many Choices

    Most birth control pills contain two hormones, estrogen and progestin. Pills that contain both estrogen and progesterone are called combined contraceptives. There is also another type of pill that contains progestin-only, called the mini-pill.

    Progestin-Only Pill

    Progestin-only birth control pills are a popular choice for many nursing and non-nursing women immediately postpartum. Also called the mini-pill, this method is less effective than combination pills. But, it is often recommended after delivering your baby because combination pills increase your risk of developing blood clots.

    Combination Oral Contraceptive Pills

    The same kind of estrogen is in all low dose combination pills. The exact dose of estrogen may have an impact on the kind of side effects you experience.
    If you have a history of blood clots, or have high blood pressure , your doctor may recommend that you take progestin-only pill. Also, many organizations are concerned that combined oral contraception may suppress milk production, so they do not recommend them in breastfeeding women. But, currently there is insufficient evidence to show that birth control pills affect how much milk your body makes.

    Monophasic vs. Triphasic

    Within the family of estrogen-containing pills, there are two main types: monophasic and triphasic. As the names suggest, monophasic pills provide the same level of hormones throughout the pill cycle. Triphasic pills also induce a steady state of hormones, but at three different levels during the cycle. The two types are equally effective for pregnancy prevention.

    Fewer Side Effects Today

    There are fewer side effects now than there used to be because oral contraceptives today contain a much lower level of estrogen. Lower hormone levels usually mean fewer side effects, but side effects do still occur.

    Negative Side Effects

    The most common complaint is about breakthrough bleeding. If you are new to the pill or have recently switched types, you should give your body three months to adjust.
    Some women believe that they will gain weight when taking the pill, but a study reported that the pill has no major effect on weight.
    Other possible side effects include headaches, nausea, breast tenderness, and bloating. If the negative side effects last for more than three months, talk to your doctor and consider changing brands.

    Positive Side Effects

    Many people experience skin improvements. For example, particular types of the pill may improve acne . Also, use of the pill decreases a woman’s risk for subsequent ovarian cancer , and endometrial cancer.

    Your Period on the Pill

    Depending on which kind of birth control pill your doctor prescribes, you could have a pack of 21 pills, 28, or even 91.
    If there are 21 pills in the pack, take one pill at the same time each day for 21 days. After seven days of not taking a pill, start a new pack. You will have your period during the break.
    If your pack has 28 pills, take one pill at the same time each day for 28 days. Since the last seven pills do not contain hormones, this will be when you will have your period.
    Another option is to have 28 pills, but with the final four pills being inactive (without hormones). With this kind of pill, your period may be shorter and lighter.
    Some pills come in packages of 91 pills (also called continuous-dosing or extended-use). The first 84 pills contain hormones, but the last seven do not. You will have your period during the seven days with no hormones.

    Oops, I Skipped a Day…

    Taking a week off after three weeks of active hormones is part of a normal pill cycle, but skipping days in the middle of the three weeks is not a good idea.
    When you take oral contraceptives, the hormone thins out the lining of the uterus making it unable to host egg implantation, and the mucus in the cervix thickens, making it tough for sperm to swim through. These benefits go away if you miss a day, increasing your risk for pregnancy.
    If you do miss a pill, take it that day as soon as you remember. Or double up (take two pills) if you do not remember until the next day. You should use another method of contraception if you forget to take two or more pills. Call your doctor or nurse and ask for advice. Complete directions for what to do are also included under the patient package-insert instructions that come with your birth control pills.

    Talk to Your Doctor

    You cannot get birth control pills without a prescription, so you have to see a doctor at some point. Be open with your doctor so that you can make the best decision possible about birth control. Women with certain conditions should not take oral contraceptive. Talk to your doctor about any medicines you take, as well as any over-the-counter or herbal medicines.
    If you experience problems and side effects, speak up. There may be something out there that's better for you.


    American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists http://www.acog.org/

    OBGYN.net http://www.obgyn.net/


    The Canadian Women's Health Network http://www.cwhn.ca

    The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada http://www.sogc.org/


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    Estrogen-progestin combinations. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 11, 2011. Accessed July 22, 2012.

    Oral contraceptives and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/oral-contraceptives. Accessed August 1, 2012.

    Progestins. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 16, 2011. Accessed July 22, 2012.

    11/19/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Gallo MF, Nanda K, Grimes DA, Lopez LM, Schulz K. 20 µg versus >20 µg estrogen combined oral contraceptives for contraception. Cochrane Database Syst Rev . 2008;CD003989.

    4/9/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Beral V, Hermon C, Kay C, Hannaford P, Darby S, Reeves G. Mortality associated with oral contraceptive use: 25 year follow up of cohort of 46 000 women from Royal College of General Practitioners' oral contraception study. BMJ. 1999;318:96-100. Hannaford PC, Iversen L, Macfarlane TV, Elliott AM, Angus V, Lee AJ. Mortality among contraceptive pill users: cohort evidence from Royal College of General Practitioners' Oral Contraception Study. BMJ. 2010 Mar 11;340:c927.

    1/28/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Truitt S, Fraser A, Gallo M, Lopez L, Grimes D, Schulz K. Combined hormonal versus nonhormonal versus progestin-only contraception in lactation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(12):CD003988.

    2/11/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Dinger J, Minh TD, Buttmann N, Bardenheuer K. Effectiveness of oral contraceptive pills in a large U.S. cohort comparing progestogen and regimen. Obstet Gynecol. 2011;117(1):33-40.

    9/30/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php : Gallo MF, Nanda K, Grimes DA, Schulz K, Helmerhorst FM. Combination contraceptives: effects on weight. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Sep 7;9:CD003987.

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