The mighty pill: What happens to the body when you take an oral contraceptive

Most contraceptive pills contain the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone - the same hormones that regulate menstrual periods.

Myupchar September 26, 2019 16:09:45 IST
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The mighty pill: What happens to the body when you take an oral contraceptive
  • Most contraceptive pills contain the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone - the same hormones that regulate menstrual periods

  • Most contraceptive pills prevent pregnancy by staving off ovulation or the release of the egg from the ovary

  • Some prevent pregnancy by making it hard for the sperm to fertilize the egg and attach to the uterus

Every few months a new drug makes its way to market in one part of the world or another. Yet, only one drug has earned the title of “the pill” so far.

In the mid-1950s, scientists developed the oral contraceptive pill that changed the way we think about sex and family planning - the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first birth control pill for commercial production on 9 May 1960.

The mighty pill What happens to the body when you take an oral contraceptive

Representational image. Image source: Getty Images.

A key invention of the 20th century, there are still misconceptions around how the pill works and its uses apart from contraception. 

Here’s a myth-busting look at the contraceptive pill.

The pill

Most contraceptive pills contain the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone - the same hormones that regulate menstrual periods. Most contraceptive pills prevent pregnancy by staving off ovulation or the release of the egg from the ovary, although some prevent pregnancy by making it hard for the sperm to fertilize the egg and attach to the uterus.

All contraceptive pills — irrespective of brand and manufacturer — fall under three main types:

  • Combined pills: contain both, estrogen and progesterone.
  • Mini pills: contain only progesterone (preferred for lactating mothers).
  • Emergency pills: also known as the 'morning-after' pill, these need to be taken within three days of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.

“The most commonly used pills are combined pills - they come in 21-day active pills and seven-day inactive or dummy pills (with no hormone at all) sets, or 21 days active hormone pills and seven days iron tablets, to compensate for iron loss during periods,” said Dr Shahnaaz Zafar, a gynaecologist associated with myUpchar.com.

Benefit versus risks

The pill works by regulating the female sex hormones. Many women experience more regular periods when they are on the pill. In fact, gynaecologists sometimes prescribe the pill to girls who have irregular periods and as part of the management of polycystic ovaries syndrome (PCOS).

Apart from this, the most obvious benefit of the pill is contraception. India is home to nearly 1.34 billion people - about one-seventh of the global population. Contraceptive pills are an important device for family planning. The pill also gives women control over their reproductive health.

“A common myth about the pill is that it becomes difficult for women to conceive even after going off it,” said Dr Zafar. “This isn’t true. Young women can get pregnant within three months of going off the pill. As we age, however, the quality and quantity of eggs made in the ovaries deteriorates. So older women can have a harder time conceiving - but this is not because of the pills, it happens because of advancing age.”

Now, the risks: Taking oral contraceptive pills means introducing additional hormones when the body does not need them - this may have short-term effects like spotting, nausea, headaches, abdominal pain, tender breasts, frequent vaginal discharge or decreased sexual desire.

“Well, these are short-term side-effects are nothing to worry about - if they don’t subside on their own, ask your doctor to recommend a different brand,” said Dr Zafar. “Taking the pill at bedtime also helps some women to avoid nausea,” she added.

There may be some long-term effects of taking the pill in some women. For example, contraceptive pills may increase one’s risk of blood clots inside the lungs or large blood vessels, high blood pressure, deep vein thrombosis and even stroke.

“Though it hasn’t been ruled out completely, there is little evidence of increased risk of cancer with contraceptive pills,” Dr Zafar said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, commercially available pills had a higher concentration of hormones - around 9.85 mg of progesterone and 150 micrograms of estrogen. To limit the side-effects, scientists have since formulated pills with lower quantities of these hormones - 0.1 to 3 mg progesterone and 20-50 microgram estrogen.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please watch our video on the right way to take contraceptive pills.

Updated Date:

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