An introduction to the contraceptive pill

What you need to know about the birth control pill


The contraceptive pill, more commonly referred to as ‘the pill’, is the most popular form of birth control for women around the world. It is the contraceptive method of choice for around one quarter of UK women of reproductive age, with around 62% of women in the US relying on it to prevent unwanted pregnancies. 

It was first made available to women in the UK in 1961, revolutionising the way they lived their lives, giving them control over their reproductive systems for the first time. Now we have many different forms of contraception available to us but the pill is still the most convenient choice for many. 


How does the pill work?

The pill contains artificial versions of hormones that are found naturally in the body: oestrogen and progesterone. These are female sex hormones which control the menstrual cycle. By taking the pill, you are essentially overriding your natural cycle and stopping ovulation from happening each month. This is where your ovaries release an egg into the womb ready to be fertilised. If this doesn’t occur, the lining of the womb breaks down and leaves your body as menstrual blood during your period. 

When you take the pill, the hormones contained in it prevent the egg from being released, thin the womb lining and also make it harder for sperm to reach an egg in case ovulation does occur. 

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How reliable is the pill? 

If you take the pill correctly each day then it will be over 99% effective. This means taking it at the same time each day without missing any and starting your new pack on the right day. Sickness and diarrhoea and taking certain types of medication can reduce the effectiveness of the pill. If you get sick while taking it, always follow the instructions given for what to do if you miss a pill. 


What are the advantages of the pill?

The main advantage of taking the pill is that it protects against pregnancy without interrupting sex and it’s also an easy to obtain and non-invasive form of birth control (for example, in comparison to the IUD or implant.) Other advantages include: 

  • Reducing PMS and period pain 
  • Lighter and more regular periods 
  • Can control acne
  • Reduces the risk of certain cancers 
  • Can protect against pelvic inflammatory disease 
  • Provides relief from endometriosis 


What are the disadvantages of the pill?

When you first start taking the pill, it will take time for your body to get used to it and adjust to the hormones. This often results in temporary side effects which can be uncomfortable or inconvenient, for example, breakthrough bleeding, mood swings and headaches. Taking the pill also increases your risk of experiencing a blood clot and breast cancer. This is why it’s so important to be mindful of your own and your family’s medical history before you take the pill.


What are the different types of the pill?

There are two main types of the pill: the combined pill and the mini pill (or progesterone-only pill). The combined pill is the most widely prescribed type and it contains both the oestrogen and progesterone hormones. The mini pill just contains the one progesterone hormone. Some women are unable to take oestrogen and in these cases, the mini pill is a suitable alternative. 

The combined pill comes in three different forms: 

  • Monophasic (21 day pills): these are the most commonly prescribed type of combined pill. This is the traditional method of taking the pill for 21 consecutive days and then having a 7 day break between packs which is when you get your breakthrough bleeding- similar to your period.
  • Phasic (21 day pills): some brands of the pill need to be taken in a specific order as there are different levels of hormones in some of the pills, for example Logynon. This is always clearly marked on the pill pack with arrows to indicate where you should start.
  • Everyday (ED pills): these pills are taken every day and are the same as the monophasic pills but there are 7 placebo pills at the end of the pack. This is a useful option for women who find it hard to remember to take it every day, or when they should start a new pack. These also need to be taken in the correct order.

There are also two different types of the progesterone-only pill:

  • 3 hour pill: this is the traditional type of progesterone-only pill and it must be taken within 3 hours of your scheduled time each day or it won’t protect against pregnancy.
  • 12 hour pill: this is the newer type of progesterone-only pill containing desogestrel which needs to be taken within a 12 hour window.


How do I start the pill? 

You’ll usually be advised to start taking the pill on the first day of your period but in some cases, you can start it at any time, for example, if you’re coming off another form of hormonal contraception and switching to the pill. Always follow the instructions that come with your pill as this advice might vary depending on the type of pill you’re taking. 


Is the pill safe? 

In recent years, the pill has had a lot of negative press. There are certain women who can’t take the pill because it can negatively affect their health. For example, those with high blood pressure, heart conditions or breast cancer. Before taking the pill, you should always read the information leaflet thoroughly to ensure you are not part of an at risk group and your doctor or pharmacist will also go through a list of questions with you too. 


What are the side effects of the pill? 

Like any type of medication, the pill can cause side effects. Many of these will only last for the first couple of months but for some women, they persist. In these cases, it’s recommended to try a different type of pill to find one that works for you. 

Common side effects include: 

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Acne 
  • Mood changes 
  • Depression 
  • Breast tenderness 

Dr Felix offers the full range of the contraceptive pills available in the UK. Find out more about our online prescriptions and find the pill that’s best for you.


National Health Statistics Report:

The Telegraph> The Pill: Women’s Best Friend?:

BBC News> How the Contraceptive Pill Changed Britain:

NHS> The Combined Pill:

NHS> The Progesterone-Only Pill:

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