What is a Contraceptive Pill: Your Comprehensive Guide

What is a Contraceptive Pill: Your Comprehensive Guide

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03 October 2023 . 6 min read

What are oral contraceptives?

Oral contraceptives or birth control pills are contraceptive methods that contain either combined oestrogen and progesterone (called combined oral contraceptives or COCs) or progesterone-only pills (POPs). COCs are the most commonly prescribed and used oral contraceptives.

Though condoms remain the most widely known contraceptive options, oral contraceptives or birth control pills are the most commonly used. Wondering if oral contraceptives are for you? Read on to learn more about what a contraceptive is, how they work, their advantages, disadvantages, and side effects in this blog!

What are contraceptive or birth control pills?

Women take contraceptives or birth control pills orally to prevent pregnancy. These pills contain the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which work in different ways to prevent pregnancy. Though oral contraceptive pills are highly effective, they do not protect you from sexually transmitted infections like HIV.

How effective is the pill?

The pill is 91% effective in preventing pregnancies, which means that 9 pregnancies per 100 women are reported due to missed doses.

How do birth control pills work?

Birth control pills contain a combination of oestrogen and progesterone hormones. These hormones work in one or more of the following ways:

  • By preventing ovulation (release of eggs from the ovaries)
  • Changing the uterine lining prevents a fertilised egg from attaching itself.
  • Changing the consistency of the cervical mucus prevents the sperm from reaching the egg.

How and when to use contraceptive pills?

Most women are unsure how to use contraceptive pills or when to take contraceptive pills. Oral contraceptive pills are taken for several days a month to prevent pregnancy from occurring. These pills are different from emergency contraceptives that are taken after sexual intercourse.

Oral contraceptive pills come in packets of 21, 28 or 91 tablets. They must be taken orally once a day, at the same time every day throughout your cycle. If you experience nausea, taking the pill with milk, after a meal or before bedtime is recommended.

There are several brands of oral contraceptives, each with a different dosage or medication. Ensure you know the brand of oral contraceptive prescribed to you and how to take it. For example, if you have a 21-tablet pack, you must take one pill daily for 21 days and no pill for 7 days. You must start a new pack after 7 days.

If you have been prescribed a 28-day pack, you must take one tablet every day for 28 days and start a new pack after you take your 28th tablet.

Oral contraceptives must be started on the first or fifth day of your menstrual cycle. You may experience withdrawal bleeding while you are on the pill. Taking your pill regularly at the same time can prevent this from happening.

If you have recently given birth, wait at least four weeks after delivery before taking oral contraceptives. Speak to your doctor about the best contraceptive option for you after childbirth.

Advantages & disadvantages of contraceptive pill?

Contraceptive pills offer a few advantages, such as:

  1. Highly Effective: Oral contraceptives, when taken correctly, are one of the most reliable forms of birth control, with a 99% efficacy rate. 
  2. Convenient: The pill offers convenience, as it can be taken discreetly and does not interrupt sexual activity.
  3. Regulate the Menstrual Cycle: Oral contraceptives can help regulate the menstrual cycle, making it more predictable and reducing symptoms like heavy bleeding and menstrual pain.
  4. Reduce Acne: Some contraceptive pills can improve acne by regulating hormone levels.
  5. Lower Risk of Certain Cancers: Long-term use of oral contraceptives has been linked to a reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.

There are a few disadvantages of the contraceptive pill, such as:

  1. May Cause Side Effects: Some women may experience side effects such as nausea, breast tenderness, headaches, mood changes, and breakthrough bleeding.
  2. Requires You to be Consistent: The pill must be taken at the same time every day to maintain its effectiveness, which can be challenging for some individuals.
  3. Does not Protect Against Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs): Oral contraceptives do not protect against STIs. So, additional barrier methods (such as condoms) may be needed.
  4. Individual Variation: Different brands and formulations of oral contraceptives may affect individuals differently, and it may take some trial and error to find the right one.

Side effects of contraceptive pills on the menstrual cycle

While contraceptive pills may cause minor side effects, they usually resolve themselves. 

Here are a few side effects of contraceptive pills on menstrual cycle:

  1. Spotting between periods
  2. Spotting or bleeding between periods (called breakthrough bleeding) is common among women taking contraceptive pills. This is caused due to hormonal changes that the uterine line must adjust to when on the pill. Taking contraceptive pills at the same time every day can prevent bleeding between periods.
  3. Breast tenderness
  4. Since contraceptive pills cause hormonal changes, some people may experience breast tenderness on taking them frequently. If your breast pain is causing you excessive discomfort, it is best to consult your doctor.
  5. Mood changes
  6. Your hormones govern your mood and emotions. Many women experience mood swings due to hormonal changes while taking contraceptive pills.

  7. Decreased libido
  8. Since contraceptive pills affect your hormones, they may affect your libido or sex drive. While some notice an increase in their libido, others may see a decrease.
  9. Missed periods
  10. Taking contraceptive pills may cause you to miss your periods or have a lighter one a month or two after starting them. This is due to the hormones they contain. If you think you are pregnant, get a pregnancy test. Though contraceptive pills are effective, pregnancies may occur if not used correctly.
  11. Changes in vaginal discharge

You may notice changes in your vaginal discharge. While some women may see an increase, others may notice a decrease in vaginal discharge. If you experience vaginal dryness while taking the pill, you may want to use lubrication while having sex. If you notice a change in the colour of your vaginal discharge, report it to your doctor, as it may be a sign of infection.


Other side effects of contraceptive pills

Besides the side effects that females experience on their menstrual cycle, contraceptive pills also cause generalised side effects, such as:

Weight gain

One of the lesser-known side effects of contraceptive pills is weight gain. This is probably due to fluid retention or an increase in water weight. However, due to hormonal changes, some women may also experience a gain in muscle mass or fat. 


Many women experience nausea when they start taking contraceptive pills. But this usually resolves in a few days. Taking your pill after a meal or before bedtime may help lower nausea. If you have severe nausea that is not resolving, consult your doctor.

Headaches and migraines

Headaches and migraines are common side effects among women taking contraceptive pills. The hormonal changes are to be blamed for triggering these symptoms.


Oral contraceptives have transformed the landscape of family planning, offering women a reliable and convenient option for birth control. Though the contraceptive pill has several advantages, it is essential to be aware of the potential disadvantages too. Remember, each person's experience may vary, so it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional to find the most suitable contraceptive option for your unique needs.