How does the contraceptive pill work? All your questions answered from breaks to timing
It's a tiny little tablet with enormous potential, but how does the contraceptive pill work?
While most of us know the basics - 21 pills in a pack, schedule regular check-ups with the nurse and try not to miss any - there’s still a whole lot that we don’t know.
I mean, how many times have you googled “How do I know if I’m pregnant?” with a panic-stricken face? Exactly. So it’s time to clear up a few of those questions and we answer how the contraceptive pill works…
How does the contraceptive pill work?
Let’s start with the big one, because while we’re happy to put it into our bodies every day, the science stuff is a bit more of a mystery. Primarily, the contraceptive pill works by preventing you from ovulating.
This does not mean it tricks your body into thinking you’re pregnant. Instead, it's that the synthetic oestrogen it contains stops your body producing the hormones required for your eggs to ripen.
It also thickens the mucus of your cervix, meaning the sperm finds it harder to reach the egg, and makes the lining of your uterus thinner so that it's less likely to accept a fertilised egg.
Does it matter if you don’t take it at the same time every day?
It’s better if you do, both because it give your body regularity and gets you into the habit of remembering to take it.
It's best to keep your pills in your purse, so you can take it as soon as you do realise.
READ MORE: 7 signs and symptoms of early menopause
You’ve missed a pill… now what?
Don’t panic: if you’ve missed one pill from a packet, you’ll still be protected pregnancy. Take the missed pill as soon as you remember, even if it means taking two in one day, then carry on as normal for the rest of your cycle.
If you’ve missed more than one pill over the course of the packet, then you’re playing a riskier game so take the most recent missed pill as soon as possible, then continue as usual but use extra protection such as condoms.
If there are less than seven pills left in the pack after the last missed pill, then run two packets together and skip your period.
Why are there so many types?
It’s as simple as the fact that different things work better for different women, so the most important thing when choosing a pill is that you’re open and honest about your lifestyle with your doctor.
The combined pill, of which there are a few different brands, is the most commonly prescribed by doctors and works well for many women. But there is also the mini-pill, which does not contain oestrogen. Although it’s slightly less effective, some women find easier to remember to take.
Is skipping a period safe?
If you’ve got a sunny holiday or hot date coming up, it can be tempting to give old Aunt Flo the elbow for a month by running two pill packs together. Although this isn’t possible on the mini-pill, for women on the combined pill it should prove no risk to health.
That said, doctors do recommend that you don’t do this more than twice in a row, as it may cause bloating, stomach pains and breakthrough bleeding.
Can you get pregnant during your pill-free week?
Now everyone’s finally getting over the myth that having sex on your period is a disgusting and abominable idea, it’s time to answer the question that no one’s really ever sure of: can you get pregnant on your period?
The simple answer is yes, due to the fact that sperm can survive for four to five days inside the vagina. If you’ve been taking your pill correctly and haven’t missed any, you should be fine for the whole break.
What can lower your protection?
It’s not only missing a pill that can lower your protection - antibiotics, vomiting and diarrhea, and herbal remedies, such as St John’s Wort, can all affect its effectiveness and require you to use further protection.
Watch out for detox tea too; a number of women have fallen pregnant after using it as a result of the laxative effect it has on your system.
Should you take a break from the pill?
Some say you should, some say it it’s not necessary, but those who really matter - doctors - say that unless you’re trying to get pregnant, there’s really no need to.
This rumour stems from misinformation about hormones building up in your body, and according to the UK's Family Planning Association there are no known benefits to your fertility or your general health to do so.
Can the pill cause cancer?
This one's another rumour that's been bouncing around for years, but experts actually believe that taking the pill actually lowers your risk of developing ovarian, uterine and colon cancer.
Researchers have found a small increased risk of breast cancer, which reduces with time after stopping the pill, and a small increased risk of cervical cancer, but according to Cancer Research UK, the pill "prevents more cases than it causes" overall.
What else can the pill help with?
Lots of things - the pill isn't only prescribed as a contraceptive, it can also be useful in treating a whole host of other conditions related to hormones including polycystic ovary syndrome, acne, regulate periods, and ease PMS.
Of course, the pill doesn't suit everyone and if it isn't right for you then there are a whole host of other contraceptives available, including the implant, the coil and even - for the super modern lady - an app.
Hopefully, this little list should answer a few of your burning questions when it comes to how does the contraceptive pill work. , But remember, there's one person that's better than everyone else when it comes to being the font of all pill-knowledge and that's your doctor.