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What to expect when taking daily contraceptives

Close up of a pack of contraceptive pills
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In the UK, contraception is free and there are lots of different options available. Some types are long-acting and need to be administered by a healthcare professional every few months or years. Others are designed to be used as-and-when they’re needed, like condoms and diaphragms.

However, most British women use the contraceptive pill, which needs to be taken every day at around the same time. If you’re thinking about starting on the combined or progestogen-only (“mini”) pill, read on to get an idea of what you can expect.

What types of contraception are used or taken daily?

The contraceptive pill is the only type of contraception that needs to be used every day. Some types are taken continuously with no break, while others incorporate a break - with these types you’ll take 21 pills, then take a week-long break before starting your new pack.

What are the benefits of the daily contraceptive pill?

The contraceptive pill is really easy to take and non-invasive, and doesn’t interrupt sex. Also, it doesn’t need to be administered by a doctor or nurse, although you’ll usually need to consult your pharmacist to get your prescription, unless you’re using a service like Online Doctor.

Benefits of the combined pill

  • Usually makes bleeds lighter, less painful and more regular
  • Can reduce the symptoms of PMS
  • Can help with acne symptoms
  • Reduces the risk of certain types of cancer e.g. of the ovaries and womb

Benefits of the mini pill

How are you supposed to take the pill?

The combined pill and the progestogen-only pill should both be taken once a day at around the same time. Some older types of the mini pill only have a three-hour window in which they can be taken each day.

When you get your combined or progestogen-only (mini pill) pill pack it will have 21 or 28 pills which have to be taken continuously across the month. In the case of a 21-pill pack, you’ll take all 21 then take a break for seven days, during which you’ll probably have a withdrawal bleed similar to a period.

Some types of the combined pill are “phasic” which means they incorporate a few different types of pill, and need to be taken in a specific order. Other types contain seven days’ worth of “dummy” pills which contain no hormones.

When in my cycle should I start taking the pill?

You can start taking the pill at any point in your menstrual cycle. However, if you take it during the first few days of your period you’ll be protected from pregnancy straight away. If you start it at another point in your cycle, you’ll need to use additional contraception (e.g. condoms) for seven days.

What’s the best way to remember to take your pill?

The easiest thing to do is to make your pill part of your daily routine.

If you wake up at the same time every day, you might want to take your pill first thing. Alternatively, you might want to take it with a meal that you eat at the same time every day, when you brush your teeth, or before you go to bed. If you don’t have a set routine, try setting a daily reminder on your phone.

If you think you’re going to struggle to take your pill every day at the same time, another type of long-acting contraception like the implant or the IUS (hormonal coil) might be a better option.

What side effects can I expect from the pill?

The combined pill can cause side effects like headaches, nausea, breast tenderness and mood changes - however these tend to be temporary. If you continue experiencing side effects from the combined pill you should speak to your GP about switching to another type.

The mini pill can cause side effects like acne, breast tenderness, mood changes, headache, nausea and a change to your sex drive. As with the combined pill, these should improve after the first few months.

What health risks are associated with the pill?

Of the two types of pill, the combined pill is associated with more health complications, which is why it’s not suitable for all women. The combined pill can raise your blood pressure, and slightly increase your risk of blood clots and breast cancer.

The progestogen-only pill isn’t associated with the same risks, although in some women it can cause harmless cysts to develop on the ovaries.

What are my other options for contraception?

There are lots of options when it comes to contraception, including the following:

Full a full list of your options, check out this guide from the NHS.

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