Birth Control Pills

Written by April Reinhardt (last updated September 5, 2008)

Birth control pills, a form of oral hormonal contraceptive, have been in use in the United States for a little over forty years. Taken orally, birth control pills—known as "the pill"—are the most popular type of birth control, with an estimated use by sixteen million women in the United States, and sixty million worldwide. When taken as prescribed, the pill is 98% effective—one of the most effective forms of contraception.

Since their creation in the 1960s, oral contraceptives have evolved into a more user-specific drug. Birth control pills available now fulfill their original goal of preventing pregnancy, while simultaneously accommodating women's hormonal requirements. There is no longer a "one size fits all" pill. Instead, there are three common types of birth control pills, with classes to fit individual needs. Today, doctors can prescribe Progestin-only pills, combination pills, and emergency contraceptive pills.

Progestin-only pills contain a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone, and nothing else. Unlike other birth control pills, they contain no estrogen, and must be taken in the same three-hour window daily so as to be entirely effective. Progestin-only pills are often called the "mini-pill," with brand names such as Micronor, Nor-QD, and Ovrette.

Aptly named, combination pills are comprised of a combination of both of the hormones progestin and estrogen. There are three types of combination pills; monophasic, multiphasic, and continuous use:

  • Monophasic pills contain an equal amount of both estrogen and progestin in each pill and are meant to be taken on a twenty-one-day schedule, with seven placebo pills to complete the month. Menstruation occurs during the placebo period when hormones are absent from the body. Some brand names of the monophasic pill are Alesse, Genora, Ortho-Cyclen, and Ortho-Novum.
  • Multiphasic pills (sometimes called biphasic and triphasic) were developed primarily to diminish side effects of taking monophasic pills. Multiphasic pills contain varying amounts of both progestin and estrogen, and different doses of each pill are color-coded to remind the user which regimen of pill should be taken at a specific time of each month. As with monophasic pills, multiphasic pills are taken on a twenty-one-day schedule, with seven placebo pills at the end of the cycle triggering the body to menstruate. Brand names include Mircette, Ortho-Novum 10/11, Estrostep-21, Ortho-Novum 7/7/7, and Ortho Tri-Cyclen.
  • Continuous use pills were approved for use in 2007. A multiphasic pill, the continuous use pill is taken every day for twenty eight days, without a seven-day placebo regimen. Therefore, women who take the continuous use pill will not have a period. The only continuous use pill approved by the FDA is of the brand name Lybrel.

Lastly, the emergency contraceptive pill was designed to prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex, or when standard contraceptive methods fail. Emergency contraceptive pills are not intended to be used regularly. To be entirely effective, emergency contraceptive pills must be taken as soon as possible after having unprotected sex, and then a final dose twelve hours later.

Birth control pills are available only by prescription. There are both benefits and risks with taking birth control pills. Benefits include improved bone density, a regulated menstrual cycle, and protection from ovarian cysts. Risks include stroke, heart attack, and no protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

Your doctor can review your medical history with you and then, together, you can decide which pill is best for you.

Author Bio

April Reinhardt

An admin­istrator for a mutual fund man­age­ment firm, April deals with the writ­ten word daily. She loves to write and plans to author a memoir in the near future. April attend­ed More­head State Uni­ver­sity to pursue a BA degree in Ele­men­tary Edu­ca­tion. ...


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