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Birth control pills are synthetic forms of the hormones progesterone and estrogen taken by women to prevent pregnancy.

Overview

What Is It?

Birth control pills are synthetic forms of the hormones progesterone and estrogen taken by women to prevent pregnancy. The birth control pill prevents ovulation by maintaining more consistent hormone levels. Without a peak in estrogen, the ovary doesn't get the signal to release an egg, which eliminates the possibility of fertilization and pregnancy.

So you've decided to use birth control pills for contraception, but all the choices seem confusing. It's no wonder, with more than 40 oral contraceptive products available in the United States today, not to mention all the other forms of birth control. This guide can help you understand the various types of oral contraceptives and some of the pros and cons.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved "the pill" in 1960, it has become the most popular and one of the most effective forms of reversible birth control ever invented. Among U.S. couples who use birth control, nearly one-third use the pill.

In recent years, birth control pills have changed to include less hormones, resulting in fewer side effects. In fact, almost all healthy women who don't smoke may use birth control pills, regardless of their age. Unlike the original oral contraceptives, low-dose pills have few health risks and even offer some health benefits.

Despite the fact that they are safe for most women, birth control pills do carry some health risks. For example, if you are over 35 and smoke or have certain medical conditions such as a history of blood clots or breast or endometrial cancer, your health care professional may advise against taking oral contraceptives. Also, birth control pills do not protect you from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS, or HPV, the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer.

Unlike other forms of birth control sold over-the-counter, you need a health care professional's prescription to purchase birth control pills, and many health insurers cover their cost. The one exception is the emergency birth control pill, Plan B One-Step, which is sold over the counter.

How Do Birth Control Pills Work?

Put simply, birth control pills work by regulating your hormones to prevent ovulation, the release of an egg each month. If there is no egg available to be fertilized, you can't get pregnant.

More specifically, here's how it works: At the beginning of each menstrual cycle, levels of the hormone estrogen begin to rise. Estrogen helps thicken the bloody lining of the uterus (endometrium) to prepare for a fertilized egg. Once estrogen levels peak, about 14 days into the menstrual cycle, one of the ovaries releases one or more eggs--this release is called ovulation.

After ovulation, levels of another reproductive hormone--progesterone--rise to help prepare the uterus to receive a fertilized egg by thickening its lining. The egg travels through the fallopian tubes toward the uterus, and if the egg is fertilized and successfully implants itself in the uterine lining, conception (pregnancy) takes place.

If conception does not occur, both estrogen and progesterone levels drop, signaling the now thickened uterine bloody lining to slough off or shed, and menstruation begins.

Birth control pills are a synthetic form of the hormones progesterone and estrogen. They prevent ovulation by maintaining more consistent hormone levels. Without a peak in estrogen, the ovary doesn't get the signal to release an egg. Remember that no egg means no possibility for fertilization and pregnancy. The pill also thickens cervical mucus so the sperm cannot reach the egg. It makes the lining of the uterus unreceptive to the implantation of a fertilized egg.

Taking Birth Control Pills

There are a few different ways you can start to take birth control pills. Discuss the pros and cons of the following methods with your doctor:

* You can start taking them on the first day of your period, in which case you won't need backup birth control.

* You can start taking them the Sunday after your period starts, in which case you will need backup birth control for seven days.

* You can start taking birth control pills on the day they are prescribed, in which case you will need to make sure you're not pregnant and you will need to use backup birth control for the first month. If you have a negative pregnancy test and it has been at least 10 to 11 days since you last had intercourse, you can be nearly sure you are not pregnant and it is OK to start the pill.

No matter when you start taking birth control pills, you will need to start each new pack on the same day of the week that you began your first pack. For example, if you start taking your birth control pills on a Monday, you will always begin taking them on a Monday. Keep in mind that birth control pills only work if you take them every day. They do not accumulate or collect in your body, which is why you must take a pill every day! You shouldn't skip pills (on purpose or by accident) or stop taking them, even if you're not having sex often. Also be aware that certain medications, such as certain antibiotics, can make your birth control pills less effective. If you miss a pill for any reason or you're taking a medication that could interfere with your birth control pills, use a backup method for the rest of your cycle.

Types of Birth Control Pills

The three most common types of birth control pills are combination pills and progesterone only pills (POP). Combination pills contain both estrogen and progestin. Each pill in the pack contains a combination of these two hormones. Progesterone Only Pills contain no estrogen. Called the progestin-only pill, or "mini-pill," it's ideal for breastfeeding women because estrogen reduces milk production. It's also ideal for women who cannot take estrogen. Both types are equally effective, and you should work with your doctor to determine the one that's right for you. There are also and emergency contraceptive pills, which are not intended to be used regularly as a contraceptive. They are designed to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex (when standard contraceptives fail or no method was used).

Learn more: Types of Birth Control Pills

Health Benefits of Birth Control Pills

Birth control pills provide certain health benefits in addition to preventing pregnancy. Before you start taking oral contraceptives, discuss the health benefits with a health care professional. Some of the main health benefits of birth control pills include an improved menstrual cycle (less bleeding and cramps), decreased risk of certain types of cancers, protection from ovarian cysts and an improved complexion.

Learn more: Benefits of Birth Control Pills

Risks & Side Effects of Birth Control Pills

Despite the fact that they are safe for most women, BCPs do carry some health risks. For example, if you are over 35 and smoke or have certain medical conditions such as a history of blood clots or breast or endometrial cancer, your health care professional may advise against taking BCPs. Also, birth control pills do not protect you from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS, or HPV, the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer. Unlike other forms of birth control sold over-the-counter, you need a health care professional's prescription to purchase BCPs, and many health insurers cover their cost. The one exception is the emergency birth control pill, Plan B One-Step, which is sold over the counter.

Learn more: Risks of Birth Control Pills
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Publication:Women's Health Updates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:1255
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