Contraceptive pills - your guide
Contraception, or ‘birth control’, is a way for men and women to prevent unwanted pregnancies and plan their families. There are many different methods of contraception, including hormonal contraception (HC) such as the combined contraceptive pill, known simply as "the Pill".
The Pill is taken by mouth by the woman to prevent pregnancy and, when taken correctly, is over 99% effective. However, the Pill does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). The latex male condom provides the best protection against STIs. Other types of combined oestrogen and progestogen hormonal contraception include the contraceptive patch and the vaginal ring.
How does hormonal contraception work?
Normally, a woman becomes pregnant when an egg is released from her ovary (the organ that holds her eggs) and fertilised by a man's sperm. The fertilised egg attaches to the woman's womb (uterus), where it receives nourishment and develops into a baby. Hormones in the woman's body control the release of the egg from the ovary and prepare the body to accept the fertilised egg.
Hormonal contraceptives (the pill, the patch and the vaginal ring) all contain a small amount of synthetic oestrogen and progestogen hormones. These hormones work to inhibit the body's natural cyclical hormones to prevent pregnancy. Pregnancy is prevented by a combination of factors. The HC usually stops the body from releasing an egg from the ovary. HC also changes the cervical mucous to make it difficult for the sperm to find an egg. HC can also prevent pregnancy by making the lining of the womb inhospitable for implantation.
What are ‘mini pills’?
These are pills that contain only one hormone (progestogen), and are subsequently sometimes known as ‘progestogen-only pills’ or POP. They do not contain oestrogen and may therefore be prescribed to women who are breastfeeding or who experience nausea with oestrogen.
How do mini pills work?
Mini pills work by thickening the cervical mucous so the sperm cannot reach the egg. The hormone in the pills also changes the lining of the uterus, so that implantation of a fertilised egg is much less likely to occur. In some cases, mini pills stop ovulation (the release of an egg). One pill is taken every day within a specific three-hour time slot.
How effective are mini pills?
If mini pills are used consistently and correctly, they can be over 99% effective - slightly less effective than standard HC.
Where can I get hormonal contraceptives?
HC are only available with a doctor's prescription, but are free for most women in the UK.
How are contraceptive pills packaged?
You will receive a set of pills packaged in a thin case. Pill packs contain either 21 or 28 pills. 21-day pill packs contain 21 active pills. 28-day pill packs contain 21 active pills and seven inactive pills. The pill packs are marked with the days of the week to remind you to take a pill every day. The seven inactive pills in the 28-day pill pack are added so that you are reminded to start a new pill pack after 28 days.