What Is It?
The birth control pill (also called "the Pill") is a daily
pill that contains the hormones estrogen and progesterone that prevent
pregnancy. Hormones are the substances that the body makes to control
different functions of the organs in the body. In this case the hormones
in the Pill control the ovaries and the uterus.
How Does It Work?
Most birth control pills are "combination pills" containing
a combination of the hormones estrogen and progesterone to prevent
ovulation (the release of an egg during the monthly cycle). A woman
cannot get pregnant if she doesn't ovulate because there is no egg
to be fertilized. The Pill also works by thickening the mucus around
the cervix, which makes it difficult for sperm to enter the uterus
and reach any eggs that may have been released. The hormones in
the Pill can also sometimes affect the lining of the uterus, making
it difficult for an egg to attach to the wall of the uterus.
combination pills come in either a 21-day pack or a 28-day pack.
One hormone pill is taken each day at about the same time for 21
days. Depending on your pack, you will either stop taking birth
control pills for 7 days (as in the 21-day pack) or you will take
a pill that contains no hormones for 7 days (the 28-day pack). A
woman has her period when she stops taking the pills that contain
hormones. Some women prefer the 28-day pack because it helps them
stay in the habit of taking a pill every day.
There is also a type of combination pill that decreases the frequency
of a woman's period by supplying a hormone pill for 12 weeks and
then inactive pills for 7 days. This decreases the number of periods
to one every 3 months instead of one every month.
Another kind of pill that also decreases the number of monthly
periods is the low-dose progesterone pill, sometimes called the
minipill. This type of birth control pill differs from the other
pills in that it only contains one type of hormone - progesterone
- rather than a combination of estrogen and progesterone. It works
in a similar fashion to the combination pill, however, it can be
slightly less effective at preventing pregnancy.
The minipill is taken every day without a break. A girl who is
taking the minipill may have no period at all or she may go several
months without a period, which means she is not ovulating. Girls
taking the minipill who are having regular periods are probably
still ovulating and are at a somewhat greater risk of getting pregnant
than girls whose periods have stopped.
The Pill works best when it is taken every single day at the same
time of day, regardless of whether a girl is going to have sex.
This is especially important with progesterone-only pills. Do not
take a friend's or sister's pills. If pills are skipped or forgotten,
a girl is not protected against pregnancy and she will need a backup
form of birth control, such as condoms, or she will need to stop
having sex for a while.
How Well Does It Work?
Over the course of 1 year, five to eight out of 100 typical couples
who rely on the Pill to prevent pregnancy will have an accidental
pregnancy. Of course, this is an average figure and the chance of
getting pregnant depends on whether you take your birth control
pills every day. The Pill is an effective form of birth control,
but even missing 1 day increases the chance of getting pregnant.
In general, how well each type of birth control method works depends
on a lot of things. These include whether a person has any health
conditions or is taking any medications or herbal supplements that
might interfere with its use. For example, antibiotics or an herb
like St. John's wort can interfere with the effectiveness of the
Pill. How well a particular method of birth control works also depends
on whether the method chosen is convenient - and whether the person
remembers to use it correctly all the time.
Protection Against STDs
The birth control pill does not protect against sexually transmitted
diseases (STDs). For those having sex, condoms must always be used
along with birth control pills to protect against STDs. Abstinence
(the decision to not have sex) is the only method that always prevents
pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Possible Side Effects
The birth control pill is a safe and effective method of birth control.
Most young women who take the Pill have none to very few side effects.
However, the side effects that some women do have while on the Pill
- irregular menstrual bleeding
- nausea, weight gain, headaches, dizziness, and breast tenderness
- mood changes
- blood clots (rare in women under 35 who do not smoke)
Some of these side effects improve over the first 3 months on the
Pill. When a girl has side effects, a doctor will sometimes prescribe
a different brand of the Pill.
The Pill also has some side effects that most young women are happy
about. It usually makes periods much lighter, reduces cramps, and
is often prescribed for women who have menstrual problems. Taking
the Pill often improves acne, and some doctors prescribe it for
this purpose. Birth control pills have also been found to protect
against some forms of breast disease, anemia, ovarian cysts, and
Who Uses It?
Young women who can remember to take a pill each day and who want
excellent protection from pregnancy use birth control pills.
Not all women can - or should - use the birth control pill. In
some cases, medical or other conditions make the use of the Pill
less effective or more risky. For example, it is not recommended
for women who have had blood clots, high blood pressure, certain
types of cancers, certain types of migraine headaches, or uncontrolled
diabetes. It's recommended that girls who have had unexplained vaginal
bleeding (bleeding that is not during their periods) or who suspect
they may be pregnant should talk to their doctor.
Girls who are interested in learning more about different types
of birth control, including the Pill, should talk to their doctors
or other health professionals.
How Do You Get It?
A doctor or a nurse practitioner must prescribe the Pill. A doctor
or nurse will do a complete physical exam, along with a pelvic exam.
The doctor or nurse will often prescribe 3 months' worth of pills
and explain when to begin taking the Pill and what to do if pills
are missed. When you come back in 3 months, the doctor or nurse
will check your blood pressure and ask if you are having any problems.
If there are no problems and you want to continue to use birth control
pills you'll probably get another prescription for 6 to 12 months.
After that, girls who are having sex should get routine exams every
6 months to a year - or as recommended by a doctor.
How Much Does It Cost?
The Pill usually costs between $20 and $50 a month, depending on
the type. Many health and family planning clinics (such as Planned
Parenthood) sell birth control pills for less. In addition, birth
control pills and doctor visits are covered by many health insurance