The birth control pill, also referred to as oral contraceptive or ‘the pill’ is one of the most widely used means of birth control. It is not only legal but affordable and, increasingly becoming culturally acceptable even with the most reserved cultures. Although the pill has been legal in the U.S since 1972, there is still much that is unknown about how it really works besides simply preventing pregnancies. Today, we take a closer look at this pill, what it contains and most importantly how it works.

What Are Birth Control Pills?

The name is self-explanatory; birth control pills are oral contraceptives that help prevent conception from occurring. The reproductive systems in men and women are both designed to create life. Eggs also referred to as ova are found in the woman’s ovaries and when fertilized by a sperm, conception occurs. The woman’s hormones naturally control the body to release an egg in preparation for fertilization; this is what we call ovulation.

The birth control pill contains hormones that alter this natural course of action. These pills work in various ways and it all depends on the type of pill you take. One of the ways in which birth control pills work to prevent pregnancies is by preventing ovulation from taking place. The pill has the ability to change the cervical mucus making it thicker which then makes it almost impossible for the sperm to penetrate. Birth control pills also help prevent a pregnancy by creating a womb lining that cannot support implantation.

The Relation between Birth Control Pills and Hormones

For many of us, the pill works in a pretty straightforward manner. A woman will take a pill as prescribed and she will not get pregnant. However, the science behind the pill is not that simple. These contraceptives contain hormones and this is because pregnancy is a hormonal affair. It is these hormones that tell the body it’s time to release an egg in preparation for fertilization.

The pill contains two hormones and these are: estrogen and progestin which act as progesterone. These synthetic hormones are used to trick the body into thinking that ovulation has already occurred. The endometrium which is the uterus lining will still continue to build up and release as part of its normal hormonal cycle when the egg is not fertilized. Unless an egg is released from the ovary, the corpus luteum which is a provisional endocrine structure that is developed during ovulation cannot develop. This is why you will notice that the period tends to be lighter and shorter after taking the pill. Progestin in birth control pills is responsible for thickening the vaginal mucus, making it harder for the sperm to penetrate and fertilize the ovum.

Do Birth Control Pills Always Work?

The pill doesn’t always work. There are women who take this form of contraception and still get pregnant. However, these pills are said to be 99.99% effective and in cases where ovulation and pregnancy occurs, it’s as a result of not taking the pill consistently or within the required time frame in the case of emergency birth control pills. Birth control can only be effective if you are able to maintain a good hormonal balance. This means that you need to take the pill every day, at the same time. Missing one or more doses may lead to pregnancy.

The pill also may not work well if it interacts with some drugs and supplements. Most doctors will recommend that you use an alternative form of birth control if prescribed with medications such as antibiotics, anti-anxiety and anti-seizure drugs.

According to Contraceptive Technology, the failure rate of the birth control pill 0.3%.

Types of Birth Control Pills

There are three main types of oral contraceptives and these are: progestin-only pills, combination pills and the morning-after pill which is an emergency contraception.

Combination and progestin-only pills come in packs for 21 days or 28 days and these are classified based on the progestin type or estrogen amount.

  • Progestin-Only Pills: Also referred to as mini pills, these pills only contain one hormone which is progestin. They are mostly prescribed for women who experience nausea due to estrogen and other pre-existing conditions that contraindicate with estrogen and nursing mothers. These pills must be taken consistently and on-time. A delay of just three hours may be enough to result in ovulation and pregnancy. The pills work by changing the uterus lining and thickening the mucus membrane as well. These pills are said to be effective by about 95% which makes them a slightly less effective form of birth control.
  • Combination Pills: Most birth control pills fall under this category. These pills are called combination pills because they contain progestin and estrogen. They are just as effective if taken in accordance with their prescription. That said; they are not advised on women with a history of conditions such as heart disease, stroke and blood clots. On the other hand, they are considered to be effective not just for birth control purposes, but other medical uses as well. Combination pills are used to regularize the menstrual flow and reduce pain. They are also said to lower the risk of developing menstrual migraines, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease and other conditions.
  • The Morning-After Pill: This is an emergency birth control pill that can prevent a pregnancy after unprotected sex. Time is of the essence with this pill and the sooner you take it, the more effective it is. The pill should be taken within 72 hours and it has an effectiveness of up to 89% and 95% if taken within 24 hours. This pill works in two ways. One, it can delay or prevent ovulation and two; it can interfere with the fertilization process. The pill also can prevent a fertilized from getting implanted into the uterus lining by altering with the lining. It’s important to note that this is not and should not be used as part of your regular birth control efforts. It is an emergency birth control option and it will be ineffective if taken regularly. The pill will also not prevent pregnancy if you have sex after taking it.

Although easily accessible as over-the-counter drugs, it’s always important to speak to your doctor to identify the best birth control pills for you.

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