The pill, or combined pill, is a course of tablets containing two types of hormone, oestrogen and progestogen, which women can take to prevent pregnancy.
The pill works on a 28 day cycle - you take the pill every day, at the same time, for 21 days, and then have a 7 day break. During this break you will have a bleed, which is similar to having a period.
At the end of the 7 day break, you begin a new pack of pills.
If you think you might not remember to re-start taking the pill after the 7 day break, you can have an everyday (ED) pill. This is a 28-day course of pills, where you take proper pills for 21 days and sugar dummy pills for 7 days.
How does it work?
The hormones in the pill work in several ways to prevent a woman from getting pregnant. They:
- stop eggs from being released (ovulation)
- thicken cervical mucous to prevent sperm from being able to reach an egg
- thin the lining of the womb so that if an egg was fertilised it would be less able to implant.
How effective is the pill?
When the pill is taken correctly, which means taking it according to instructions and not taking pills late or missing any, the pill is more than 99% effective in preventing pregnancy.
Advantages of taking the pill:
Being on the pill does not interrupt sex.
Research also shows that taking the combined pill provides some protection against ovarian, womb and colon cancer.
Other benefits are lighter periods, reduced period pain and premenstrual symptoms, and some types of pill can help reduce acne too.
Disadvantages of the pill:
When you start taking the pill you may experience some temporary side effects, such as breast tenderness, light bleeding and mood changes.
There can also be some more serious side effects. These include blood becoming stickier, a slight increase in the risk of blood clots and a slight increase in the risk of breast and cervical cancer. Some of these risks may be greater, depending on your family medical history.
You also need to be able to take the pill at approximately the same time every day for it to work properly. If you know this will be difficult to remember then another form of contraception is probably better for you.
Most importantly, the combined pill does not provide any protection against HIV or other sexually transmitted infections like a condom does.
Things to bear in mind
The pill is not suitable for everyone. It is important that the doctor or nurse prescribing it to you is aware of your medical and family medical history and any other medication you are taking.
You are less likely to be prescribed the pill if you have high blood pressure, are older than 35, are a smoker, suffer from migraines or are very overweight.
Other medications (eg epileptic medicines or TB treatment), and/or vomiting caused by taking common antibiotics like penicillin can make your pill less effective, so an additional method of contraception, like condoms, should be used.
Always seek advice from your doctor or sexual health clinic if you start new medicines or have diarrhoea or vomiting while taking the pill.
Where can I get it from and how much does it cost?
The combined pill is available free on the NHS. You can only get it on prescription. This can be from your GP, a practice nurse or a sexual health or young person's clinic.