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The Pill

What It Is and How It Works


The first time you heard someone say "The Pill," you probably wondered, "The Pill for what?" Well, "The Pill" refers to lots of different kinds of birth control pills -- oral medications you take to keep yourself from getting pregnant. In addition to preventing pregnancy, birth control pills also used to treat a number of other health conditions, from severe acne to painful periods to a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

How Do Birth Control Pills Work?

All types of The Pill use man-made forms of female hormones that your ovaries produce naturally. These hormones help prevent pregnancy by stopping your body from releasing eggs and making the lining of your uterus less friendly to sperm.

Most birth control pills contain a combination of the hormones estrogen and progestin (also known as progesterone), though some pills contain progestin only. The progestin-only pills are sometimes called POPs or mini-pills.

Is The Pill Safe?

The Pill is a safe option for most teenagers. However, it is not risk-free. People with high blood pressure, hepatitis, severe migraine headaches, some types of heart disease and blood-clotting disorders may need to avoid The Pill.

Birth control pills that contain estrogen have also been linked to a small increase in the chance of developing dangerous blood clots in their legs. This risk is small, affecting 15 to 20 out of 100,000 women, but you should discuss it with your doctor and find out if blood-clotting disorders run in your family. If you are a smoker, you should also let your doctor know because smoking raises your risk of blood clots and some types of The Pill may be safer for you than others.

What Are The Benefits of The Pill?

Most people find that there are lots of benefits to taking birth control pills. These benefits include:
  • Lighter, more regular menstrual periods with fewer cramps
  • Less acne
  • Lower incidence of anemia
  • Protection against certain types of cancer, ovarian cysts, breast lumps, ectopic pregnancy and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

Does The Pill Prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)?

No. If you are using The Pill to prevent pregnancy, you still need to use a barrier method of contraception such as condoms to protect against STDs.

Will The Pill Change The Way I Look or Feel?

Most teens don’t have any major side effects from taking The Pill, and you are still the same person you always were, whether or not you’re taking it. However, each type of The Pill affects each person a bit differently since one person’s body is different from another's.

Some of the more common side effects of birth control pills include:
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes
  • Breast tenderness
  • Appetite changes
  • Bloating
  • Weight gain
  • Spotting between periods

What Should I Do If I Experience Side Effects?

Side effects such as spotting and mild headaches usually disappear after three or four menstrual periods, but you should let your doctor know about them -- especially if they bother or worry you. Switching to a different type of pill or a different birth control method, such as a diaphragm or contraceptive injection, might do the trick.

If you experience chest pain, a severe headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, vision or speech problems or leg pain, see a doctor immediately.

How Effective Is The Pill?

If you take a combination (estrogen and progestin) birth control pill at the same time each day, it is 99% effective at preventing pregnancy. Taking a progestin-only pill (POP) at the same time each day is 98% effective.

However, it's not always possible to take the pill at exactly the same time every day. Experts estimate that the "real-world" effectiveness for both types of pills is about 95%. This means that out of every 100 people who take birth control pills, five become pregnant each year. That's another good reason to use a condom in addition to The Pill.

What Types of Birth Control Pills Are Available?

Dozens of different formulations of The Pill are available these days. There are a variety of different kinds of man-made estrogens and progestins available, plus each type of pill offers different combinations and doses of these hormones.

Your doctor will help you decide which type of The Pill is right for you, or if a method such as a hormonal patch or insertable contraceptive ring is a better fit.

How Do I Get The Pill?

To find out if The Pill is a good choice for you, and to get a prescription, you need to visit a doctor or a nurse practitioner. The doctor or nurse practitioner will assess what types of pills are the best match for you and explain how to take them.

The Pill can cost between $15 and $50 per month depending on the type you need. However, birth control pills are available for less at many walk-in health clinics and family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood, and they might be covered by your health insurance plan. If you’re worried about paying for The Pill, let someone such as a nurse or health educator at your local hospital, teen health clinic or Planned Parenthood know.

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