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What is birth control?

Dr. Hugo D. Ribot, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

In the vast majority of patients, birth control pills will result in less bleeding, less menstrual cramping, and shorter periods.

As a matter of fact, one can safely eliminate the periods for three months at a time by using what are known as extended cycle pills, where one only takes the active pills for 84 days and then either skips the pills altogether or uses the placebo (sugar) pills that contain no active ingredients for the next seven days.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

There are many types of birth control pills. Some have more estrogen in them. Some contain different types of progestin. Also, the levels of those hormones may change day to day throughout the month, depending on the type of pill. They also have different effects on your menstrual cycle and period.

Some pills are designed so that you still have a monthly period. Each month, you take 21 or 24 active pills that contain hormones, and then 7 or 4 inactive pills without hormones. The active pills in some brands are the same each day. In others, the hormone levels change slightly 1 or more times through the cycle. While taking inactive pills, most women have withdrawal bleeding, which is similar to a period.

Women who do not want to have withdrawal bleeding every month can use extended-cycle pills. One type contains 84 active pills and 7 inactive pills. Bleeding occurs only 4 times a year. Another type includes 365 active pills. This prevents bleeding completely. Most women who use this type have some spotting or bleeding at first, but after a year, about two-thirds of the women have no more bleeding.

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Birth control pills will likely affect your period by making it more regular and easier to predict. Some women may have irregular periods or no periods for a few months. If you are taking a progestin only birth control pill, your periods may not change or you may have spotting between periods.

Estrogen and progestin, two hormones in conventional birth-control pills, inhibit ovulation, the monthly occurrence where a woman’s ovaries release an egg. Common side effects include spotting or bleeding between periods, nausea, weight gain from fluid retention, breast tenderness, mood changes and mild headaches. Progestin-only pills, also called mini-pills, make the uterine lining thinner and the cervical mucus thicker so sperm cannot reach an egg. These pills avoid the side effects of using estrogen and have a high failure rate because they must be taken at the same time every day.

Dr. Bonnie Lynn Wright, PhD
Geriatrics Nursing Specialist

Birth control is the conscious attempt to avoid conception while being sexually active. Birth control has been around since men and women figured out what caused pregnancy and that they could do something about it!  Even back in ancient societies, various natural materials were used to act as a barrier or spermicide. Today, we have in-depth knowledge and means for preventing conception. Nonetheless, we still have varying numbers of unwanted pregnancies around the globe. Clearly our advanced methods still do not work unless they are available, understood and used properly. Even then, they are not 100 percent reliable. No method is. 

Sexual activity close to but not quite intercourse can result in pregnancy. It rarely happens but if ejaculation occurs and whatever material between the penis and vagina is wet and thin, sperm can cross that barrier. Be smart. Be prepared. You can get pregnant the first time if you aren't.

There are various types of birth control to choose from:

  1. Pharmaceutical — such as the pill or patch, etc.
  2. Chemical — such as the spermicidal creams, jellies and that added to condoms
  3. Abstinence — such as maintaining virginity or the rhythm method.
  4. Barriers — such as condoms, sponges, diaphragms, etc.

In Canada, all Public Health Units are listed in the local telephone directory and have staff and clinic times so you can consult face-to-face to get advice on what method is best for you. You can also go on-line to find legitimate advice on birth control from reliable websites, such as Sharecare. For parents trying to answer or advise their children, the same resources are available.

Birth control pills work by suppressing the production of follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH. FSH stimulates the ovary to initiate the new cycle and the development of the egg. When you take a birth control pill, the estrogen component is suppressing FSH, preventing egg development and ovulation. The progesterone component in the pill has effects on the uterine lining and the lining of the tubes, creating an unfavorable environment for implantation of an egg once it has been fertilized, preventing pregnancy.

Terrie Watkins
Midwifery Nursing Specialist

In order for a pregnancy to occur, an ovum (egg) must be released from the ovary, a process called ovulation. Pregnancy results when the egg travels through the tube and is exposed to sperm from the male. The release of the egg from the ovary results from a very specific hormonal pattern. By taking a birth control pill every day, a woman can change that hormonal pattern and prevent ovulation. No egg, no baby. The birth control pill is one of the most popular and effective contraceptive methods available.

Paula Greer
Midwifery Nursing Specialist

Birth control is any method used to prevent pregnancy. Birth control is also called contraceptive management and family planning and may be coded as such on the bill you receive from your healthcare provider. Birth control methods include pills, patches, the ring, injections, implants in the arm, intrauterine devices, foam and condoms, tubal ligation and natural family planning. Discuss these options with your healthcare provider along with their risks and benefits to find the best option for you.

Dr. Theresa Lohman
Midwifery Nursing Specialist

Birth control is anything that controls the onset of pregnancy. It is also called family planning. There are many methods of birth control. Some contain hormones and are taken orally, injected, place on the skin in the form of a patch, placed in the vagina or inserted under the skin. There are more mechanical forms that are placed in the uterus, in the vagina or on the male penis (condom). Not having sex or not having sex during your most fertile time in the month is also birth control.

The web has many resources for birth control information. Make sure you access a legitimate source. It will usually end in .org or .gov. Web MD and Mayo clinic have good web sites. You can also make an appointment with your OBGYN provider for more information and to discuss what would be right for you.

Patricia Geraghty, NP
Women's Health

Birth control pills prevent pregnancy. Most pills have the two female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, in them. In a natural menstrual cycle, the changing levels of these two hormones allow an egg to mature, to ovulate and to prepare for pregnancy. Birth control pills keep the hormone levels the same everyday to prevent the egg from maturing and ovulating. Sometimes the dose of progestin changes a little each week while the estrogen dose stays steady. Typically pills with hormones are taken for 21 to 24 days each cycle. These pills are followed by placebo pills which don't contain any medication. The woman will have bleeding during the placebo pills. Other patterns of pill use are to continue on the hormone containing pills for a longer time and have fewer bleeding periods.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.