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The contraceptive pill

The contraceptive pill (sometimes called the pill, birth control pills or oral contraceptives) is one of the most popular forms of contraception.  

It is very effective at preventing pregnancy if you take it correctly. This means taking it every day. 

The contraceptive pill does not protect against HIV or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). So even if you decide to use it you should think about using condoms as well.  

What is the contraceptive pill?

It is a tablet that contains two hormones (the combination pill) or one (the mini pill). Only women can take birth control pills.  

Where can I get the contraceptive pill?

From your local doctor or nurse or at a sexual health clinic. You might also be able to get them from community-based programmes. For example, some youth-clubs also provide friendly sexual health services. 

How does the pill work?

It releases hormones into your body that stop an egg being released (known as ovulation), and this prevents pregnancy.  

Find out more about ovulation by reading about the menstrual cycle. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking contraceptive pills?

Advantages 

  • Birth control pills are very effective at preventing pregnancy if you remember to take them every day. 

  • It means you are in control of whether you get pregnant or not. 

  • They can stop heavy or painful periods and period-related mood swings (premenstrual syndrome).  

  • Birth control pills can also reduce acne. 

Disadvantages 

  • You have to remember to take it every day at around the same time.  

  • It doesn’t protect you or your partner from STIs including HIV – only condoms prevent pregnancy and STIs. 

  • In the first few weeks you might get side effects, such as tender breasts, mood changes and light bleeding between periods.  

  • Some women have more serious side effects, including blood clots, although this is rare.  

  • Some medication can make the pill less effective. This includes some HIV treatment and antibiotics used to treat tuberculosis and meningitis. Check with your doctor about taking the pill if you're taking any other drugs.  

  • If you vomit or have severe diarrhoea within a few hours of taking the pill, it might not work. You might need to take another pill straight away or use condoms until you are better.  

How do I take the contraceptive pill?

It depends on the type of pill you are taking.  

You usually take the combination pill every day for 21 days then take a seven-day break during which time you will normally get your period (for more on this see our ‘In detail’ tab). After a week, you start taking the pill again. 

 If you are taking the mini-pill you do not take a break. 

When you first start the pill (either type), if you take it between the first and fifth day of your period (days 1-5 of your menstrual cycle) you will be protected from pregnancy straight away.  

You might prefer one type of pill over the other. But if you decide to swap between the two you will need to speak to a doctor first.  

What should I do if I missed my birth control pill?

This can increase your chance of getting pregnant. This will depend on when in your menstrual cycle you missed the pill and how many days you have missed taking your pill for. 

If you think you’re likely to forget, you should consider other options, such as the implant. 

And here are some tips to help you remember: 

  • set a daily alarm 

  • store your birth control pills next to things you use every day (like your toothbrush) 

  • put your pills in your bag so they’re always with you 

  • ‘buddy up’ with someone who also takes medicine every day so you can remind each other 

  • ask your partner to remind you. 

Do we still need to use condoms if I’m on the contraceptive pill?

Condoms are the only type of contraceptive that protect you and your partner from STIs including HIV, so it is worth using them even if you are using birth control pills. 

Will taking the pill harm my chances of getting pregnant later on?

The contraceptive pill only works for as long as you keep taking it. So if you decide you’re ready to have a baby, you can stop taking the pill and your fertility will return to normal.  

Let's talk about the contraceptive pill!

Here are a few questions to help kick-off discussions on the issues you need to talk about! You can share them on social, on WhatsApp or just get talking.

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What happens if my period comes at a different time from my seven-day break?

Lots of women have irregular menstrual cycles, especially when they are young or for reasons like stress. If you have an irregular cycle it is likely that you will still experience some spotting or bleeding during your seven-day break, even if it is not a full period. You should still start your next pack of pills on day eight, whether you are still bleeding or not.  

You might also get some spotting or bleeding at other points in your cycle. This is normal and you should still keep taking the pill if this happens. 

Will the pill unbalance my hormones and make me ‘crazy’?

The pill contains hormones, but these are similar to the hormones that females produce naturally. Some people do experience slight mood swings but these should settle down after a while and not everyone will get them.  

Will the pill make me put on weight?

The pill can have side effects, and one of these is putting on weight, but everyone reacts differently – some people don’t get any side effects at all. A lot of people start taking the pill at an age when their body is changing, which is one of the reasons why people associate weight gain with taking the pill.  

If you are taking the pill and experiences side effects that you are worried about, talk to your healthcare professional as there are plenty of other birth control methods you can try. 

Can I take the pill after giving birth?

On day 21 after giving birth, if you are not breastfeeding you can start taking the pill (either type). This will prevent pregnancy straight away. If you start taking the pill after day 21, you will need to use condoms or another birth control method for the next 7 days. If you are breastfeeding, you should not take the pill until six weeks after giving birth. 

It is always a good idea to speak to your doctor before you start taking the pill after giving birth. If you have had a miscarriage or abortion, you can start taking birth control pills straight away.  

What advice can I give to someone about the contraceptive pill?

If someone is thinking about using birth control pills, the best thing you can do is give them clear and accurate information, respect their decisions, be open and do not judge. 

They might feel embarrassed about discussing things to do with sex. If they are, you could give them details of a friendly healthcare professional, a helpline or factual online resources, like this site. 

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  • Last updated: 21 March 2022
  • Last full review: 01 March 2022
  • Next full review: 01 March 2025
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