What is the pill?
The pill is a small hormone tablet that is taken daily. There are two main types of pills: estrogen-progestin combination pills, and progestin-only pills, although the vast majority of women take combination pills.
Both types of pill prevent pregnancy by releasing the same hormones present in the system during pregnancy. This essentially tricks the body into believing it is pregnant, which suppresses ovulation. If there is no egg present in the uterus, the sperm will have nothing to fertilize. Many pills also increase cervical mucus to prevent sperm from entering the uterus at all. Additionally, certain pills temporarily thin the cervical lining, so that if ovulation occurs and a sperm manages to fertilize the egg, it will still be difficult for implantation to occur. The barriers put up by the pill are manifold, which has contributed to its widespread, lasting popularity.
How effective is the pill?
If it is always taken correctly, the pill is nearly 100% effective: less than 1 in 100 women will get pregnant if they take one pill every day at exactly the same time. With normal, imperfect usage, the pill is still about 95% effective. Most women will take their pill at slightly different times each day, or will occasionally forget altogether and have to take two the following day, making it slightly less effective. The pill does not prevent against HIV or other STDs.
The pill has also been shown to be less effective on severely overweight and obese women. Certain studies have suggested that smoking may decrease its effectiveness slightly, although these effects have not been studied in depth.
Certain antibiotics and other medications have been shown to make the pill less effective, so it is important to discuss any medications with your doctor before choosing to start taking the pill.
What are the myths associated with the pill?
Below are the top 6 myths associated with pill use. These are common misconceptions that may be stopping people from taking birth control pills, event though they are completely untrue.
1. The pill causes weight gain. This myth has clung to popular culture despite being studied extensively without any supporting evidence emerging. In controlled experiments, research has shown time and again that the pill does not directly cause weight gain. However, there is some evidence that the progestin levels in certain pills may increase appetite, which can lead to weight gain. However, the weight gain is related to the user’s dietary habits, and not the direct effects of the hormone itself. Additionally, certain pills may increase water retention, which can make a woman feel bloated. This side effect should not be confused with increased fat content, and can usually be reversed by switching to a lower dose pill.
2. The pill causes infertility. In reality, there is absolutely no correlation between birth control use and infertility. This myth has been studied extensively by the medical community, and no connection has ever been shown. In fact, exactly the opposite has been shown to be true: women who stop taking the pill regain normal fertility almost immediately, which is the main reason why it is so important to take the pill every day as directed. Certain women see a lag period between when they stop using the pill and are able to conceive again, with the typical time being one menstrual cycle, or about 28 days. Some other factors that have caused this myth are naturally decreasing fertility as a woman ages, or previously unknown fertility problems in women who never tried conceiving before.
3. The pill causes birth defects. Extensive research has shown no link between birth defects and pill usage, even for women who have accidentally continued using birth control through early pregnancy. Certain studies have suggested that birth control use during early pregnancy may slightly increase the risk of preterm delivery, although it does not affect the baby’s general health. Particularly newer pills, which use lower doses of hormones than older ones, show no correlation between continued use and infant health.
4. The pill causes cancer. This myth has two sides: pill users may be at slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer, but are actually at lower risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancers. The risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer, or cancer of the ovaries and uterus, is actually lower in pill users than other women. This protective effect increases the longer a woman takes birth control pills. There have been studies that suggest that women on birth control pills may be at slightly higher risk for breast cancer during their usage period, which is believed to be due to the increased estrogen and progestin levels that accompany pill usage. However, recent medical literature does not tend to support this idea. Women on birth control are also more likely to develop cervical cancer, although this has been linked to decreased use of condoms and a higher rate of HPV contraction among pill users, which can lead to cervical cancer. This cancer is not believed to be linked to hormone intake from the pill itself.
5. It is worst to miss a pill in the middle of the pack. This myth comes from the understanding that a woman is most fertile in the middle of her menstrual cycle. However, the pill suppresses ovulation, meaning that women on the pill do not experience a normal menstrual cycle. A woman on birth control pills can safely miss 7 consecutive days of her pill before her menstrual cycle begins—and she does, at the end of the pack. It is always best to take the pill as directed, meaning at the same time every day, but if a pill is forgotten it makes no difference if it is at the beginning, middle or end of the pack.
6. I have to get my period every month on the pill. This myth refers to the last week of the pack of pills, where a woman takes placebo, or sugar pills, to induce menstruation. However, there have not been results that suggest that simply skipping over this week and moving on to the next pack is harmful in any way. Women who do this have increased risk of breakthrough bleeding, in which they get surprise mini-menstruations, but it is not harmful to a woman’s overall reproductive health. It is recommended that women who do this allow themselves to menstruate at least every three months, or switch to a pill that is specifically made to reduce menstrual periods to once every three or four months. This is especially recommended for women who get migraines, as migraine symptoms are often connected to hormone fluctuations and can sometimes be checked by maintaining constant hormone levels. It is also important to check with insurance if you plan on skipping your placebos—many insurance companies only let you pick up your refill a week early, so skipping a week of pills might mean you are actually unprotected for a while.
What are the disadvantages of the pill?
The pill has tons of advantages for women who want a safe, healthy way not to get pregnant. The pill is also relatively inexpensive and extremely effective, making it a great option for most women. However, there are certain disadvantages of the pill.
The most common complaint among women is forgetting to take the pill. For maximum effectiveness, the pill must be taken every day at around the same time. Many women set an alarm to remind themselves to take their pill, and carry the pack of pills with them during the day.
Some women will also experience nausea, breakthrough bleeding, and tenderness around the breasts when they begin taking birth control pills. These symptoms tend to clear up after a few months on the pill. If they persist, women are encouraged to talk to their doctor to see if birth control pills are their best option.
Women who experience migraines may also see an increase in their symptoms while taking the pill, particularly during menstruation. If this is the case, it is recommended that these women speak to their doctors about birth control pills that only cause menstruation every few months, to keep hormone levels stable and decrease this side effect.
Certain pills, particularly combination pills, have been shown to slightly increase the risk of blood clotting in women who use them, particularly if these women are overweight and/or smokers, or are over the age of 35. This side effect is very rare, but can lead to serious health problems. It is important to discuss this possibility with your doctor if you believe you are at risk.
Where can I get the pill?
The pill is available by prescription only. Talk to your doctor about getting on the birth control pill if this seems like a good option for you.