An overview of oral contraception

The birth control pill (or oral contraception) is an advantageous option on several levels. Learn more on the subject.

How does oral contraception work?

Oral contraceptives, which are in pill-form, are commonly called birth control pills. The first birth control pill became available in 1956. Since then, millions of women around the world have benefited from this contraception method, which has multiple advantages.

Birth control pills generally contain two types of different hormones: a derivative of oestrogen and a progestative (derived from progesterone). The type and amount of hormones contained in these combined oral contraceptives vary from one brand to another. They are very effective in preventing pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation and modifying cervical mucous, which slows spermatozoids and blocks fertilization.

What are the advantages of this contraception method?

When used appropriately, oral contraceptives are more than 99.7% effective. The risk of pregnancy increases when it is used inconsistently. Their main advantage is that they are easy to use and usually cause few side effects. It is important to note that birth control pills do not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The condom is the only one to have this virtue.

In addition to their contraceptive effectiveness, these medications can have other health benefits, such as:

  • alleviate premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstrual pains
  • diminish menstrual flow
  • improve regularity of menstrual cycles
  • reduce the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer, benign (non-cancerous) breast diseases, and ovarian cysts
  • improve acne

When should you refrain from taking an oral contraceptive?

It may not be advised to take an oral contraceptive in certain circumstances, for instance if you:

  • are breastfeeding
  • have a history of blood clots, cerebrovascular accident (CVA or stroke) or heart problems
  • are over 35 and smoke
  • suffer from diabetes or high blood pressure
  • suffer from breast or uterine cancer
  • have a family history of breast cancer
  • have a kidney disease
  • must have major surgery
  • etc.

The doctor or nurse will assess your medical situation and weigh the benefits and risks with you before prescribing an oral contraceptive.

What are the most common side effects?

Certain side effects may be felt upon starting to take an oral contraceptive. These side effects are usually mild and temporary. Here are some examples:

  • nausea
  • stomach ache
  • menstrual cramps
  • headaches
  • sensitive breasts
  • spotting between periods
  • irregular periods

Your pharmacist can inform you about the possible side effects and explain what to do is they occur. If some of them persist, it may be advisable to change contraceptive. It may sometimes be necessary to try several formulations before finding the right one for you.

How can oral contraceptives be used optimally?

If you have been prescribed an oral contraceptive, it is crucial to understand exactly how to use it. Your pharmacist can explain it to you. Ask him/her as many questions as necessary. Among other things, make sure you know:

  • at what point during the menstrual cycle you should begin taking the medication
  • if you should use another contraception method in the days following the beginning of the treatment
  • when to take the active pills and the inactive (placebo) pills, if applicable
  • when to start a 7-day hormone-free interval
  • when to start a new cycle

In order to maximize the contraceptive effect, the medication must be taken regularly at the same time each day. The following advice will also help you to maximize your treatment's contraceptive effectiveness

  • If you forget to take a pill, take it as soon as you notice it. This may mean that you take two pills at your next scheduled dose. If you forget to take more than one pill or if you have forgotten several pills in the same week, speak to your pharmacist, who will explain what to do.
  • Do not take the medication if it has expired.
  • Store your medication at temperatures ranging between 15 and 30°C.
  • Although quite rare, certain prescribed or over-the-counter medications and natural health products could interact with your oral contraceptive. Always speak to your pharmacist to check if there is a risk of interaction before taking other medications.

Don't hesitate to speak to your pharmacist if you have any questions about contraception, whether or not it is hormonal.

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An overview of oral contraception

The birth control pill (or oral contraception) is an advantageous option on several levels. Learn more on the subject.
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