Oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, are one of the most convenient and accessible options for reversible birth control. It’s no surprise that–more than 50 years after its release–the pill is still the first choice for reliable birth control among women. While the pill is quite effective, there are medications and usage issues that can lower its effectiveness. It is smart to know the facts to prevent an unwanted pregnancy while using oral contraception.
The birth control pill was developed in the 1950s. By 1951, with the support of Planned Parenthood, Gregory Pincus, M.D., confirmed that progesterone would suppress ovulation. Human trials using oral progesterone began in 1954. A very high dose of progesterone was selected for the new drug, marketed as Enovid, to create the most-effective oral contraceptive.
The hormones in a combination birth control pill, estrogen and progesterone, combine to suppress ovulation, thicken cervical mucus and thin the lining of the uterus. Inhibiting ovulation is the primary means of preventing pregnancy, but if ovulation does occur, the other effects of the pill act to reduce the risk of pregnancy.
With perfect use, oral contraceptives have a very low failure rate, under 1 percent, according to Planned Parenthood. Actual use rates, accounting for missed pills, late pills or late starts, account for approximately 8 pregnancies per 100 users per year. Taking your pill at the same time every day as prescribed will allow you to maximize the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.
The majority of birth control pills on the market combine estrogen and progesterone in varying doses. Lower dose birth control pills remain effective, while causing fewer side effects. Some new pills rely upon drospirenone, an alternative to progesterone. If one pill does not work well for you, you may wish to try another. Low dose progesterone-only pills, called the mini-pill are available, but are less effective.
While oral contraceptives are effective, they do cause a variety of side effects. Minor problems associated with birth control pills include bloating, nausea and breakthrough bleeding. Reduced menstrual bleeding is typical; many women experience decreased cramping or menstrual discomfort. More serious side effects include an increased risk of blood clots or strokes.