The birth control pill, or oral contraceptive, is one of the most effective and popular choices to avoid pregnancy. A combination of estrogen and progesterone provides users with an easy-to-use and well-tolerated birth control method suitable for teens, young women and women through to menopause. First developed in the 1950s, today’s pills use a low dose of hormones to limit side effects and the risks of long-term use.
Research into a contraceptive pill began in the early 1950s, with the support of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Scientists, including Dr. Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock, recognized that progesterone will suppress ovulation. The development of orally available progesterone allowed trials to begin on a small scale. Side effects of these high dose progesterone-only pills were significant, but an accidental addition of estrogen improved these. In 1957, the pill was approved for the treatment of menstrual disorders, and FDA approval as a contraceptive followed in 1960.
Birth control pills today use a much lower dose of estrogen and progesterone than those early pills. There are three basic types of combination birth control pills on the market today. The first is a monophasic pill. The same dose of estrogen and progesterone is taken through the entire cycle. A multiphasic birth control pill varies the dose of hormones throughout the cycle. In the case of both traditional monophasic and multiphasic pills, the final week of the cycle is a placebo to allow for menstrual bleeding. Several new pills on the market skip these placebos, allowing women to avoid having periods altogether.
The pill uses a combination of estrogen and progesterone to prevent ovulation, thicken cervical mucus and thin the uterine lining. Taken according to manufacturer’s directions, the pill is more than 99 percent effective. With typical use, it is around 92 percent effective, according to Planned Parenthood. Take your pills every day, at around the same time, for the best results and lowest risk of pregnancy.
The pill is not without side effects. Positive side effects may include lighter periods, less menstrual cramping and reduced acne. Some women may experience weight gain, depression, low libido or mood swings on hormonal birth control. The estrogen in birth control pills increases the risk of blood clots and strokes. This risk is highest if you are a smoker over 35 or have medical conditions that place you at higher-than-normal risk.
While the pill is quite effective, you should use backup contraception in some situations. If you miss more than one pill, a backup method is appropriate. You may also want to consider backup contraception if you are heavier than average, as the pill appears to have a higher failure rate for women over a normal weight. Finally, birth control pills provide no protection against sexually transmitted diseases. If you are not in a committed relationship, use condoms as well as the pill to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted diseases.