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contraceptive pill packet

What is 'The Pill'?

'The Pill' most commonly refers to the combined pill, the most popular form of oral contraceptive for women. The combined pill contains two types of hormones. The alternative to the combined pill is the progesterone only pill, or ‘mini-pill’, which only contains one type of hormone. Doctors will usually decide which type will suit you best by finding out about your health history.

The combined pill

All combined pills must be prescribed by a doctor, and initially you will usually receive a three-month supply.

There are three main types of combined pill:

  • Everyday pills (28-day pills)
  • Monophasic (21-day pills)
  • Phasic (21-day pills)

These categories refer to the way the pills are taken (i.e. every day or in three-week phases), and whether the amount of hormones in the pills is the same in each tablet, or varies according to which part of the hormonal cycle, or phase, you are in. It’s worth remembering that combined pills that are taken everyday still only have 21 “active” pills that contain hormones, and also have 7 “inactive” pills that contain no hormones at all.

While there are key differences between the different categories of combined contraceptive pill, they all have things in common. All combined pills contain artificially manufactured versions of the naturally occurring female hormones oestrogen and progesterone, and in the pill these hormones are known as oestrogen and progestogen. Different brands of pill contain slightly different types of oestrogen and progestogen, and some types might suit some women better than others. If you feel a particular brand of pill is giving you unwanted side effects, it’s worth discussing it with your GP as they may recommend trying a different brand with a different combination of hormones.

How does the pill work?

Pregnancy happens when a man's sperm reaches one of the eggs released each month by a woman's ovaries and fertilizes it. The fertilised egg then travels from the fallopian tube to the womb and implants or “sticks” itself into the lining of the womb, known as the endometrium. If the pregnancy is successful, the fertilised egg will continue to grow, and eventually develop into a foetus/baby.

The pill works in a few ways to prevent pregnancy. The main action is to stop women ovulating or releasing eggs each month. However, the hormones in the pill also thicken up the mucus in the cervix so that the sperm find it harder to travel through to the womb and fallopian tubes, and so are unable to fertilise an egg. The hormones in the pill also make the endometrium thinner. This makes it much harder for any fertilised egg to implant in the womb, so the risk of pregnancy is reduced.

How effective is the pill?

Unfortunately, no method of contraception is 100% effective all the time, but as long as it's taken correctly, the combined pill is over 99% effective. Statistics show fewer than one woman in a hundred will get pregnant while on the pill.

Do other medications stop the pill working?

Always tell your GP about any other medicines you take, including herbal or prescription, before you start the pill. Some medicines do stop the pill working properly which would mean you could be at risk of becoming pregnant. These are usually listed in your pill information leaflet, but can include some antibiotics, some epilepsy medications, some medicines for HIV, and the herbal medicine St John’s Wort. The emergency pill EllaOne can also have an effect on the pill, so you should seek advice from your Doctor if you are prescribed this in addition to a regular contraceptive pill.

Is the pill only prescribed as a contraceptive?

The combined pill is most often prescribed as a contraceptive, but can also be useful in the treatment of other conditions. For many women, the pill regulates the frequency and duration of their periods, lightens their flows and also reduces the amount of pain that comes with them. If you are suffering from unusually heavy and uncomfortable periods, your doctor may offer you the option of going on the pill. Some doctors even prescribe the pill in an attempt to treat certain strains of acne. For some women, the pill may also help in the treatment of skin conditions like acne.

Does the pill protect against STIs?

The pill does not protect against any kind of sexually transmitted disease or infection. Condoms should be used in addition to the pill if you are worried about sexual health or uncertain of your partner's sexual health.



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