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About the Birth Control Pill

Talking to your kids about sex can be daunting, no matter how close you are. But discussing issues like abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and birth control can help lower teens' risk of an unintended pregnancy or contracting an STD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports sex education that includes information about both abstinence and birth control. Research has shown that this information doesn't increase kids' level of sexual activity, but actually promotes and increases the proper use of birth control methods among sexually active teens.

How and when you discuss sex and birth control is up to you. Providing the facts is vital, but it's also wise to tell your kids where you stand. Remember, by approaching these issues like any other health topics, not as something dirty or embarrassing, you increase the odds that your kids will feel comfortable coming to you with any questions and problems. As awkward as it might feel, answer questions honestly. And if you don't know the answers, it's OK to say so, then find out and report back.

If you have questions about how to talk with your kids about sex, consider consulting your doctor. Lots of parents find this tough to tackle, and a doctor may offer some helpful perspective.

What Are Birth Control Pills?

The birth control pill (also called "the Pill") is a daily pill that usually contains the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and is taken to prevent pregnancy.

How Does the Pill Work?

Most birth control pills are "combination pills" containing a combination of the hormones estrogen and progesterone to prevent ovulation (the release of an egg during the monthly cycle). A female cannot get pregnant if she doesn't ovulate because there is no egg to be fertilized. The Pill also works by thickening the mucus around the cervix, which makes it difficult for sperm to enter the uterus and reach any eggs that may have been released. The hormones in the Pill can also sometimes affect the lining of the uterus, making it difficult for an egg to attach to the wall of the uterus.

Most combination pills come in either a 21-day pack or a 28-day pack. One hormone pill is taken each day at about the same time for 21 days. Depending on the pack, the birth control pills are either stopped for 7 days or a pill that contains no hormones is taken for 7 days. During the week that the female is taking no pills or pills that don't contain hormones, she has her period. Some women prefer the schedule in which pills are taken every day of the month because it helps keep them in the habit of taking a pill every day.

Also available is a combination pill that reduces the frequency of a woman's period by supplying a hormone pill for 12 weeks and then inactive pills for 7 days. This reduces the number of periods to one every 3 months instead of one every month.

Another kind of pill that may change the number of monthly periods is the low-dose progesterone pill, sometimes called the minipill. This differs from other birth control pills in that it only contains one type of hormone — progesterone — rather than a combination of estrogen and progesterone. It works by changing the cervical mucus and the lining of the uterus, and sometimes by affecting ovulation as well. It may be slightly less effective than the combination pills at preventing pregnancy.

The minipill is taken every day without a break. A girl who is taking the minipill may have no period at all or she may have irregular periods. In order for the minipill to work, it must be taken at the same time every day, without missing any doses.

Every type of birth control pill works best when it is taken every single day at the same time of day, regardless of whether a female is going to have sex. This is especially important with progesterone-only pills. It's very important that your daughter not take anyone else's pills. If pills are skipped or forgotten, she is not protected against pregnancy and she will need a backup form of birth control, such as condoms, or she will need to stop having sex for a while.

For the first 7 days of taking the Pill, a girl should use an additional form of contraception, such as condoms, to prevent pregnancy. After 7 days, the Pill should work alone to prevent pregnancy. But continuing to use condoms will protect against STDs.

How Well Does the Pill Work?

Over the course of a year, about 8 out of 100 typical couples who rely on the Pill to prevent pregnancy will have an accidental pregnancy. The Pill is an effective form of birth control, but even missing 1 day increases the chance of pregnancy.

In general, how well each type of birth control method works depends on many things. These include whether a woman has any health conditions or is taking any medications or herbal supplements that might interfere with its use. For example, antibiotics or an herb like St. John's wort can interfere with the effectiveness of the Pill.

Protection Against STDs

The birth control pill does not protect against STDs. Couples having sex must always use condoms along with the Pill to protect against STDs.

Abstinence (not having sex) is the only method that always prevents pregnancy and STDs.

Possible Side Effects

The Pill is a safe and effective method of birth control. Most young women who take the Pill have none to very few side effects.

Smoking cigarettes and using the Pill can increase a girl's risk of certain side effects, which is why health professionals advise girls who use the Pill not to smoke. Side effects that some women have while on the Pill include:

  • irregular menstrual bleeding
  • nausea, headaches, dizziness, and breast tenderness
  • mood changes
  • blood clots (rare in women under 35 who do not smoke)

Some of these side effects improve over the first 3 months on the Pill. When a girl has side effects, a doctor will sometimes prescribe a different brand of the Pill.

The Pill also has some side effects that many young women enjoy. It usually makes periods lighter, reduces cramps, and is often prescribed for women who have menstrual problems. Taking the Pill can improve acne, and some doctors prescribe it for this purpose. Birth control pills have also been found to protect against some forms of breast disease, anemia, ovarian cysts, and ovarian and endometrial cancers.

Who Uses Birth Control Pills?

Young women who can remember to take a pill each day and who want excellent protection from pregnancy can use birth control pills.

Not all girls can — or should — use the birth control pill. In some cases, other medical conditions make the use of the Pill less effective or more risky. For example, it is not recommended for those who have had blood clots, certain types of cancers, or certain types of migraine headaches. If a girl has high blood pressure that's under control, she can sometimes use the Pill under a doctor's supervision. Girls who have had unexplained vaginal bleeding (bleeding that is not during their periods) or who suspect they may be pregnant should talk to their doctor.

Where Are Birth Control Pills Available?

A doctor or a nurse practitioner must prescribe the Pill. He or she will ask about a girl's health and family medical history, and will do a complete physical exam, which may include a pelvic exam. If the doctor or nurse prescribes birth control pills and explain when to begin taking it and what to do if pills are missed.

When your daughter returns to the doctor in a few months, her blood pressure will be checked and she'll be asked about any problems. After that, girls who are having sex should get routine exams every 6 months to a year, or as recommended by a doctor.

How Much Do Birth Control Pills Cost?

The Pill usually costs between $15–$50 a month, depending on the type. Many health and family planning clinics (such as Planned Parenthood) sell birth control pills for less. In addition, birth control pills and doctor visits are covered by many health insurance plans.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: September 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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