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oral contraceptives

Alternative Names
birth control pills, the pill, BCP, birth control pill

Oral contraceptives or birth control pills (BCP)are pills which are taken by mouth everyday to prevent pregnancy. They are the most widely used method of reversible birth control. Oral contraceptives work by preventing the ovaries from ovulating, or releasing eggs.

What is the information for this topic?
Most BCP's use a combination of oestrogen and progesterone. The BCP is taken for 21 to 25 days, followed by the use of placebo pills until day 28. The brain no longer signals the ovaries to produce and release an egg. The most common reasons for failure are:
  • forgetting to take the pill at the same time every day
  • poor absorption of the pill, which can be caused by diarrhoea, vomiting, and the use of some antibiotics
  • using oral contraceptives which have expired dates
The most common uses of oral contraceptives are: Oral contraceptives should not be used by woman who have had: Other conditions such as smoking, uncontrolled high blood pressure or diabetes, and obesity may make the pill unsafe for a woman over 35. Prior to beginning the pill, a woman will have a physical examination. This examination includes a pelvic examination, a PAP smear screening, blood pressure measurement and blood tests to check blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

Side effects of taking oral contraceptives are:
  • headaches
  • breast tenderness, pain, and discharge
  • irregular spotting or vaginal bleeding
  • weight increase
  • leg pain, cramps or swelling
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • mood swings
Serious risks and complications include: Oral contraceptives are effective in preventing pregnancy, but woman need to be aware that they do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases(STDs). Safer sex practices such as using condoms along with the pill can help prevent STDs.

Author: Eva Martin, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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