Patient Education

Birth Control Pills

Millions of women all over the world are prescribed birth control pills to prevent pregnancy and regulate their menstrual cycles. However, many women have questions about oral contraceptives; how they work, what the risks are, and most importantly, what the benefits are. This page is designed to help you get the facts about birth control and to answer questions you may have about them. 

WHAT CAN BIRTH CONTROL PILLS DO FOR ME?

Birth control pills are first and foremost designed to prevent pregnancy. When you take the pill as prescribed, it is effective 99.7% of the time against unwanted pregnancies. As well as preventing pregnancies, the pill also works to control and regulate menses. When taking birth control, many women experience shorter and lighter periods, which is desirable for many. It also makes periods much easier to predict.

Birth control pills can also help with moderate acne. The hormones released in the pill help level the hormones in your body, which oftentimes lead to acne when they are unbalanced. Birth control pills may also be used to treat PMS, PMDD, menstrual cramps and menstrual migraines. Finally, the birth control pill is also proven to reduce your risk of developing certain types of cancers.

HOW DO BIRTH CONTROL PILLS WORK?

Every month, your reproductive system goes through a natural cycle called the menstrual cycle. During this cycle, levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone are released in certain amounts, which signal to your ovaries to produce an egg and for your uterine lining to thicken. This egg then travels down into your fallopian tube where it prepares to be fertilized. If the egg goes unfertilized by sperm at the end of the month, your hormone levels will then decrease, causing the uterine lining to shed along with the egg, thus creating your period.

The birth control pill contains small concentrated amounts of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. When taken, these amounts of the hormones fool your body into believing that you are pregnant. Therefore, your ovaries are not signaled into producing an egg, which means that any sperm introduced is harmless and has nothing to fertilize, meaning you cannot get pregnant. At the end of the month, you will often take several pills that do not contain any hormones. This creates a natural drop in your body’s hormones which will then signal your body to have a period again.

HOW DO I TAKE THE PILL?

Birth control pills only are effective if they are taken exactly as prescribed. When you receive your pills, you will note that there is a whole month’s worth of pills in the container with a pill marked one for each day. Make sure to take your pill every day. The pills are most effective if you take each pill at the exact time each day, for example with lunch, or breakfast, every day at a certain hour. At the end of the container, you will have some pills that are different color than the others. These are the pills that do not contain any hormones, and while taking them you will get your period. As soon as you finish a cycle of pills, it is important to start on another pack immediately.

If you miss a pill, don’t panic. Take one as soon as you remember. It is alright to take two pills in one day if you are making up for a missed day. This however has the potential to make you a little nauseous from all the hormones. If you miss more than one pill, though, you will need to use back up contraception like condoms. You also may have slight bleeding if you miss 3 or more pills.

DO I NEED TO USE ANY OTHER METHODS OF CONTRACEPTION WHEN TAKING THE PILL?

Although the pill is 99.7% effective in preventing pregnancy, there are still risks, especially when the pill is not taken correctly as prescribed. Missing pills in the cycle or taking them at irregular times increases your chances of becoming pregnant and other methods of contraception should be used in such cases. Also, birth control pills do NOT prevent against any STD’s such as HIV/AIDs, HPV, or Chlamydia. Only condoms and caution will protect you from STDs, so it is important if you are taking the pill to get regularly tested for STDs.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION LIKE PLAN B ® AND BIRTH CONTROL PILLS?

Regular birth control pills contain small amounts of hormones in them that are introduced into your system gradually that help prevent pregnancy any time you have sex during the month. Emergency contraception is a pill that is taken under 72 hours after having unprotected sex (no birth control pills or condoms) to prevent pregnancy. It contains a very large amount of estrogen that will help prevent against unwanted pregnancy fast, and it is not as effective as regular monthly birth control pills. Pills like Plan B ® can be helpful in an emergent situation, but they are NOT to be used like a monthly birth control or treated as such, because the large amounts of estrogen in them can make you sick. If you are having unprotected sex, it would be much safer to go on birth control than to simply use emergency contraception, as it is risky and not always effective.

ARE THERE ANY SIDE EFFECTS OR RISKS FROM TAKING THE PILL?

As with any other medication, there are side effects and risks with birth control pills as well. Most women do not experience negative side effects, but those that do often experience nausea, spotting/irregular bleeding, headaches, and slight weight gain. However, most of these side effects go away after three months of proper use of the pill.

The pill can also cause severe complications for some women. Although extremely rare, some women are liable to develop blood clots, strokes, or have heart attacks. This is much more common in women over 35 who take the pill, and smoke or drink frequently. Obesity is also a factor. However, as long as you stay healthy, active, and do not use drugs or alcohol in excess while taking the pill, you will likely do well on the pill.

HOW DO I GO ABOUT GETTING THE PILL?

At your next visit to your gynecologist, ask about the birth control pill and if it is right for you. Many factors will go into this decision, as well as which brand to choose, such as your age, current health, weight, medications, and whether or not you smoke. However, if your doctor recommends it to you, he or she will give you a prescription, which you can take to be filled at your local pharmacy. Although many generic versions of oral contraceptives are available and marketed as being cheaper, it is important to know that you will get different responses to different formulations. 

IN CONCLUSION

Birth control pills are the most effective way of preventing unwanted pregnancies, as well as helping to regulate heavy periods, and to clear up acne. When used correctly, they can prevent up to 99.7% of pregnancies. However, it is always important to remember that they cannot protect you against STDs. Make sure to ask your doctor if birth control is right for you.  Although there are some side effects and risks, as long as you maintain a healthful lifestyle while taking them, you will likely do well on the pill.