Since its FDA approval in the 60s, “the Pill” has become one of the most popular and effective forms of reversible birth control ever invented. A 2013 National Health Statistics Report says that of the women who’ve opted to use some form of birth control, 82 percent of them had also used the Pill at some point.
Birth control pills contain different combinations of the hormones estrogen and progestin to prevent pregnancy. There many different kinds, so it’s important to talk with your doctor to find the right one for you. Here’s what Kecia Gaither, MD, director of perinatal services at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, tells her patients about taking birth control pills:
1. There are two main kinds: progestin-only pills or combination pills that have both estrogen and progestin.
“The hormones in the Pill keep your ovaries from releasing eggs and thicken your cervical mucus to block sperm from getting into the uterus,” says Dr. Gaither.
Sometimes called "minipills," progestin-only pills are ideal for women who are breastfeeding or who can’t take estrogen, such as breast cancer patients. They’re slightly less effective than combination pills.
When it comes to combination pills, you have a lot of options. “One of the main differences among them is when you get your period and how long it will last,” says Dr. Gaither. With some pills, you take them every day for three weeks, then wait a week before starting a new pack, and that’s when you get your period. With others, you can take the Pill every day for three months, and you only get your period four times a year. Some pills you can take for a year straight without getting a period.
2. The Pill does not protect you against STIs.
The Pill is great at preventing pregnancy, but it won’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). What does? Using a condom.
Condoms dramatically lower your risk of getting—or spreading—an STI. What’s more, condoms also protect against pregnancy, so using a condoms and birth control pills together gives you double pregnancy protection.
3. The Pill is 91 percent effective at preventing pregnancy.
When used perfectly, the Pill is 99 percent effective. But, hey, no one is perfect. “With typical use, the pregnancy protection is a little lower,” says Dr. Gaither.
Remember: The better you are a taking your pill every day and starting your pill packs on time, the better the Pill will work at preventing pregnancy.
4. Missing pills is the main mistake you need to avoid.
“This is one of the main reasons people get pregnant while they’re on the Pill,” says Dr. Gaither. One of the best ways to remember to take your birth control pill is to take it at set times during your normal routine. For example, if you take your medicine every day after breakfast or before brushing your teeth at night, you may be less likely to forget. (Here are more helpful tips to help you remember to take your pills.)
It’s also important to know what you do when you miss a pill. “If you miss just one day, take it as soon as you remember, and take the next one at your regular time,” says Dr. Gaither. “But if you miss two or more in a row, you should use a back-up birth control method, like condoms, or use emergency contraception if you recently had sex.” Here are important facts about emergency contraception everyone should know.
5. For the progestin-only minipill, timing matters!
Taking your pill outside of the same 3-hour window each day can raise your risk of pregnancy. You don’t need to be quite so precise on timing with combination pills.
6. There are many reasons to take the Pill aside from preventing pregnancy.
The birth control pill has many other medical uses that are incredibly beneficial to those who take it. “[The Pill] may also stop heavy bleeding during your period, reduce painful cramps, ease PMS symptoms, improve acne, and reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancer, like ovarian and endometrial,” says Dr. Gaither.
7. The Pill has side effects you need to be aware of.
Common side effects that you may experience while on the Pill include:
And breakthrough bleeding.
Like other birth control options that contain estrogen, the Pill may not be safe if you have certain health issues such as blood clots, high blood pressure, breast cancer, or serious migraines. “The Pill may slightly increase your risk of breast and cervical cancer, but research shows this risk goes down over time once you stop taking the Pill.
Here are more routine birth control options to consider: