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The birth control pill prevents people from becoming pregnant, but there are a ton of misconceptions about how the pill works and how it affects the body. To clear up some of the confusion, we spoke to Jean Moon, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy. She gave us the low-down on all things BC, and armed us with the necessary tools to make an informed health-care decision.
First things first.
Before we get into the myths and facts about BC, you should learn a little bit about the chemical makeup of the average birth control pill. Our bodies naturally produce the hormones progesterone and estrogen, and the pill provides a dose of a synthetic version of these hormones on a daily basis. Most birth control pills provide a combination of the two, although some strictly provide progestin (the name for synthetic progesterone).
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Now let’s nerd out a little: Progesterone and estrogen levels peak at the beginning of your menstrual cycle, then dip after a couple of weeks. That drop in hormones kicks off the ovulation process (aka getting the egg out of the ovary), through the fallopian tube, and down into the uterus where sperm can perform its job.
Taking the pill every day, however, prevents those hormone levels from dropping, because the pill itself provides a steady stream of hormones. That basically tricks your body into staying in Position A – eggs in the ovary with no plans to travel out.
The pill is actually stopping a person from ovulating,” Moon told AwesomenessTV. “By not ovulating, that prevents that person from being able to get pregnant.
The pill also thickens the mucus around the cervix. The thicker the mucus, the harder it is for sperm to travel into the uterus. It’s another little barrier.
Now let’s get to the myths and facts.
Fact: You should take the pill at the same time every day.
This is actually true, and quite important especially for people on the progestin-only pill. If you miss taking the pill one day, it’s probably not going to affect you dramatically (though it would still be wise to use a backup method, such as a condom). But depending on where you are in your cycle, habitually missing days or taking the pill irregularly could seriously impact its efficacy, Moon explained.
Because remember, the pill works by keeping those hormone levels high. Without it, the body might get the signal that it’s time to ovulate. And ovulation = a potential baby-making situation.
Myth: The pill works perfectly.
The pill is really good at preventing pregnancy. And we mean really, really good — when it’s taken perfectly it’s 99 percent effective. But life makes it hard to be perfect all the time, so experts say that the pill is actually 91 percent effective in real life. Think of it like this: About 9 in 100 pill users will get pregnant each year, according to Planned Parenthood.
Fact: You still need to use condoms.
The pill is great, but it will not protect against getting or transmitting sexually transmitted infections or HIV/AIDS.
Myth: You never bleed if you’re on the pill.
Since ovulation never takes place when you’re on the pill, neither does the typical building-up of the uterine wall, but you will still bleed during the “off week” of your birth control pack.
That’s technically considered “withdrawal bleeding” — it’s the body’s response to a sudden loss in hormones (since those sugar pills don’t contain any active hormones) rather than a proper menstrual flow. And since the uterus never built a thick lining to shed, there’s just much less to release, which is why some women notice their periods become much lighter when they’re on the pill. For women with extremely heavy flows, birth control pills can offer a safe, effective way to lighten menstrual bleeding.
Fact: A minor’s ability to get a birth control RX changes from state to state.
Doctors can prescribe the birth control pill to minors above age 12 without parental consent in many states — but not all. In some states, a minor must be married, already pregnant, or considered “mature” for a doctor to prescribe.
Myth: The pill can mess with your ability to get pregnant later on.
“It doesn’t stop you from later being able to have children,” Moon said. More accurately, the pill simply tells the body to pause ovulation while you’re on it.
However, if someone goes on the pill in their teens and stays on it through adulthood, being on the pill could conceal a disorder that makes it hard to conceive, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Moon explained that someone might not know that they have PCOS, for example, until they stop taking the pill. Since PCOS interferes with your body’s ability to ovulate, it may prevent your from getting pregnant, making it seem like the pill’s at fault — but really the pill was concealing your PCOS.
Fact: Many women take the pill for reasons other than birth control.
Aside from preventing pregnancy, the pill can help clear up acne, ease crippling menstrual cramps, reduce heavy bleeding, and help manage the pain of endometriosis. It can also lower the risk of colon and ovarian cancer, and prevent the growth of ovarian cysts, as Self magazine reported last year.
Myth: The pill makes you gain weight.
This is such a common misconception. If a teen gains weight after going on the pill, it might be due to the fact that they’re still developing, Moon explained. A report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews pretty much busted this myth for good in 2014, too.