Oral contraceptives are more commonly just called ‘The Pill’. They are drugs you swallow that work to prevent pregnancy. They do this by changing the flow of hormones in a woman's body that control her ability to produce eggs, have them fertilised by sperm and/or to implant a fertilised egg. They offer no protection against sexually transmitted infections.
There are two types of oral contraceptive – the ‘combined pill’ and the ‘progestogen-only pill’ (also known as the ‘mini pill’).
The combined pill contains two hormones – oestrogen and progestogen. It is taken for 21 days then no pill is taken for 7 days before the next pack is started. Some contain ‘inactive’ pills which are taken for 7 days. Your doctor can discuss this with you and will explain how to take them.
Not all women can take the combined pill. You might not be able to take it if you smoke, are overweight, are aged 35 or older, have other medical conditions or are on certain medications. Again, your doctor will be able to advise you on this.
Also known as the ‘mini pill’, the progestogen-only pill only contains one hormone – progesterone. It is taken every day. It is taken every day and some progestogen-only pills must be taken within three hours of the same time every day, though that's not the case for all of them, so discuss this with your doctor.
As with other drugs, both types of 'the pill' can have side effects. Don't worry if you're not getting on with one you've been prescribed. It might take a while trying different types of pill until you find one that suits you.
You have to take 'the pill' regularly to stay protected from pregnancy. If you miss a pill you risk pregnancy.
When taken correctly, the pill is over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy. This means that less than 1 woman in every 100 will get pregnant in a year.
Remember, missing pills or not taking them according to the instructions makes them less effective and increases risk of pregnancy.
Their effectiveness can also be affected if you have vomited, have diarrhoea or if you are on other medication (such as antibiotics and some herbal medicines).
The pill is available free on prescription from your GP or sexual health clinic.