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Whenever we’re prescribed a medication the first thing many of us do is turn to doctor Google, to which we may find a whole heap of horror stories. This is the case when searching for the contraceptive pill with stories of women suffering adverse side effects. There are many claims that the pill has resulted in death in young women or severe illness, but how true are these claims and is the pill actually safe?
We take a look at the benefits and risks of taking the pill to weigh up its safety and whether it’s worth taking. If you’re thinking about going on the pill but have some concerns, we give you expert answers to some of your niggling questions for your peace of mind, and quash those headline horror stories!
What is the contraceptive pill and how does it work?
Dating back to the 60s, ‘the pill’ has revolutionised the sex lives of millions of women allowing them to enjoy sex without the worry of getting pregnant. Apart from liberating women’s sex lives, the pill has many other uses such as treating acne and not all 3.5 million women in the UK take it for pregnancy prevention, although this is its primary use.
So how does it work?
There are two types of the contraceptive pill, the combined pill and the mini pill. The combined pill is the most common type and works by stopping the release of an egg and making it harder for the sperm to reach the egg by thickening the mucus in the neck of the womb, or by thinning the lining of the womb so there is less chance of a fertilised egg implanting and growing. The combined pill contains both oestrogen and progesterone hormones and is usually taken once a day for 21 days followed by a 7-day break when you will have a bleed similar to a period.
Many women prefer to have this break as it mimics the normal menstrual cycle and there is an assumption that this is safer and more natural. However, the latest research has found that there are no benefits of taking the 7-day-break, and the break was actually devised to gain acceptance from the Pope. New guidelines have deemed it safe to continuously take the pill without a break.
This will be great news for those women who suffer from menstrual cramps or other side effects and feel that they need to take this break, when in fact they were simply pleasing the Pope! It’s also going to be possible to have a year’s supply rather than a 3 month supply, meaning those inconvenient trips to the GP surgery are no more.
The mini pill, however, has always been taken continuously without a break. This pill contains only one hormone, progesterone, and is an option for those women who are not suitable to take oestrogen due to medical reasons. It should be taken once every day without a break.
The pill is one of the most effective contraception methods, if taken correctly at the same time each day, the pill is more than 99% effective. However, it doesn’t protect against STIs so you will still need to use a condom to protect against infection.
What are the benefits of the pill?
As it’s been used by millions of women worldwide for over 50 years, the pill has done a lot of good and changed women’s lives for the better. Preventing unwanted pregnancies continues to be the biggest benefit of the contraceptive pill, allowing women to have a choice and more control over when they will fall pregnant.
There are many other methods of contraception out there for women such as the implant, vaginal ring, female condoms and cervical caps, but the pill remains the most popular method as it is easy to take and doesn’t interrupt sex.
The pill is also prescribed for a range of other reasons as it has been proven to have many health benefits. It’s common for women to suffer from painful periods and other menstrual symptoms but according to Women’s Health Concern, around 10% of women suffer severe period pain that affects their normal daily activities. For these women, their whole lives are disrupted for a whole week every month. To manage the symptoms of menstruation many GPs prescribe the pill to make bleeds more regular, lighter and less painful. For this reason, the pill has been hugely beneficial for women and improved their quality of life.
The NHS lists many other advantages of taking the contraceptive pill including:
- Reducing the symptoms of PMS
- Reducing acne
- Protecting against
- Reducing the risk of cancer of the ovaries, womb and colon
- Protecting against pelvic inflammatory disease
- Reducing the risk of fibroids, ovarian cysts and non-cancerous breast disease
How safe is the contraceptive pill?
As we mentioned earlier, there are many horror stories out there which suggest that the pill is too risky to take. The latest case study reported by the Daily Mail claims that a 27-year-old woman had liver damage caused by the Rigevidon pill which throws into question, is Rigevidon safe?
There is little information on whether this pill did cause this woman’s liver damage or how or why. Liver damage can be caused by a range of medical conditions, infections and medications and the lack of evidence or information regarding this particular case means it’s difficult to say whether this particular product is dangerous. Rigevidon is identical to other types of pill, and like any pill, there are side effects. These cases are very rare which is why they are reported and hyped up in the media.
There are common side effects which are usually only temporary such as headaches, nausea, breast tenderness and mood swings. It may also increase blood pressure and cause some breakthrough bleeding or spotting in the first few months of taking the pill.
The pill has also been linked to some serious but rare health conditions such as thrombosis and breast cancer which have provoked concern amongst women and attention from the media.
Although blood clots are a concern it is very rare that a woman will experience thrombosis whilst taking the contraceptive pill, which the NHS is keen to emphasise. The media have been accused of scaremongering women and pushing them to turn their back on one of the biggest advances in medicine. The NHS published an article in response to the headlines and reported that only around 12 in 10,000 women taking the combined pill are at risk of blood clots. This puts the concerns into perspective, the chances of blood clots are very slim just as the chances of falling pregnant whilst on the pill are also very slim.
So, should we turn our back on the pill or continue to take it?
Research is still being carried out on the link between the pill and breast cancer so there isn’t yet any overriding evidence that the pill causes breast cancer. And in terms of thrombosis, women who are already at risk of blood clots such as those who smoke, have high blood pressure or are overweight etc will not be prescribed the pill anyway. If you’re otherwise healthy there is no reason why you shouldn’t take the pill. It’s important to get expert advice from someone who is medically trained rather than using the headlines as a reason to stop taking the pill.
If you’re experiencing side effects there are many types of contraceptive pill that you can switch to find a more suitable alternative. If Rigevidon isn’t working for you then another pill like Loestrin might, it all comes down to the individual and there are lots of options out there.
Preventing unwanted pregnancy certainly outweighs the small health risks of the pill, and it continues to be hugely beneficial to the lives of millions of women.