Hormonal methods of birth control contain estrogen and progestin, or contain just progestin, and are a safe and reliable way to prevent pregnancy for most women. They have been used for many years as a safe and effective method of contraception. There are several ways that the hormone(s) can be delivered:
Combination estrogen & progestin:
- A daily pill taken by mouth
- A skin patch that is changed weekly
- A ring in the vagina that is changed every month
- A daily pill taken by mouth
- An injection that is given once every three months
- A rod implant that is placed under the skin of the arm for up to three years
- An IUD that is effective for 3 to 5 years
Combination Hormonal Birth Control
Hormonal birth control options that contain a combination of estrogen and progestin include:
Most oral contraceptives, also referred to as “the pill,” contain a combination of female hormones, estrogen and progestin.
Several non-contraceptive benefits of the pill include a reduction in:
- Menstrual cramps or pain (dysmenorrhea)
- Iron-deficiency anemia (a low blood count due to low iron levels)
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
Other non-contraceptive benefits are treatment of:
- PMS (in many women)
- Perimenopausal problems
Possible side effects of the pill may include:
- Nausea, breast tenderness, bloating, and mood changes, which typically improve within two to three months without treatment.
- Breakthrough bleeding or spotting. This is particularly common during the first few months of taking oral contraceptives and almost always resolves itself without any treatment within two to three months. Missed or late pills can also cause breakthrough bleeding.
If you experience continuing side effects from taking birth control pills, talk with your Women First Care Team. The pill comes in many brands and formulations, and your Care Team can help you find the pill that’s best for you.
When taking the pill, you should notify your Women First Care Team for severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or severe leg pain.
The effectiveness of the pill may be reduced if you take certain medications.
Anticonvulsants: Some anticonvulsants, including phenytoin (Dilantin®), carbamazepine (Tegretol®), barbiturates, primidone (Mysoline®), topiramate (Topamax®) and oxcarbazepine (Trileptal®) can decrease the effectiveness of hormonal birth control methods (pill, patch, ring). These medications should be discussed with your doctor. Depo-medroxyprogesterone acetate [Depo-Provera®]) is NOT affected by any of these medications, and it actually reduces seizures in patients who have them, making it a good choice for women with seizures.
Other anticonvulsants DO NOT appear to reduce contraceptive efficacy, including gabapentin (Neurontin®), lamotrigine (Lamictal®), levetiracetam (Keppra®), and tiagabine (Gabitril®). However, there is some concern that oral contraceptives may reduce the effectiveness of lamotrigine, potentially increasing the risk of seizures.
Antibiotics: Rifampin, which is sometimes used to treat tuberculosis, can decrease the efficacy of hormonal birth control.
Other antibiotics (e.g., penicillin, cephalexin) DO NOT affect the efficacy of hormonal birth control methods.
St. John’s Wort: St. John’s wort, an herbal supplement sometimes taken to treat depression, may reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills.
Starting the Pill
When to expect a period: When the pill is taken on a 28-day cycle with 21 days of hormone pills followed by 7 days of placebo pills (“sugar pills”), your period usually occurs during the fourth week of the pill pack, i.e., the “placebo week.” However, some women have irregular breakthrough bleeding or spotting in the first few months. It is not necessary to take the placebo pills, but some women find it easier to remember to start their next pill pack if they have taken the placebos.
Shorter pill-free interval: Several pill formulations are available with 24 days of hormone pills (rather than 21) and only four days of placebo pills. This approach is designed to shorten and lighten periods, and minimize pill failures and side effects.
Continuous dosing: Some women prefer to take birth control pills continuously, which allows you to have fewer days of menstrual bleeding per year. This regimen is a particularly good treatment if you experience painful periods or endometriosis, as well as if you want to avoid a monthly bleed.
Some pills are designed and packaged for extended continuous dosing to have a period only every 3 months. Taking an oral contraceptive for an extended time results in fewer periods per year, although you may experience breakthrough bleeding when starting this regimen. Breakthrough bleeding is inconvenient, but does not indicate an increased risk of pill failure (unless you’ve forgotten to take any pills).
Traditional birth control pill packs can also be used in continuous dosing. In this regimen, you take the first three weeks of a pill pack (all the active pills), then immediately start a new pack (without a break); the last week of (placebo) pills is not used. This can be continued for as long as desired. This works best when all the active pills are the same pills (mono phasic not triphasic).
Birth control patches contain estrogen and progestin—similar to oral contraceptives—and are a week of pills in patch form. The patch is as effective as oral contraceptives and may be preferred since it does not require daily dosing. The failure rate of the patch may be higher for women who weigh more than 198 pounds.
Xulane® is the only patch contraceptive available in the United States. Effectiveness is similar to that of oral contraceptive pills.
The patch is worn for one week on the upper arm, shoulder, upper back, abdomen, or hip. After one week, the old patch is removed and a new patch is applied.
This is a great option for women who like birth control pills but don’t like daily responsibility. Risks and side effects are similar to those of oral contraceptives. Learn more about the patch here.
Nuvaring® is a soft flexible vaginal ring that contains estrogen and progestin, which is slowly absorbed through the vaginal tissues. The ring is changed monthly, and its position inside the vagina is not important.
Most women cannot feel the ring, and it is easy to insert and remove. If the ring is left out for more than 3 hours, a backup method of birth control (e.g., condom) should be used for the next 7 days.
This is a great option for women who like birth control pills but don’t like daily responsibility. Risks and side effects are similar to those of oral contraceptives. This is essentially a monthly pack of pills in vaginal ring form.
If you are using a hormonal method of birth control (pill, patch, vaginal ring), be sure to take the next dose (or apply a new patch or insert a new ring) on schedule, even if you have not had your menstrual period.
Being late getting back on your pill pack or patch or ring is one of the most common causes of contraception failure. If you are late starting the next pack of pills, patch, or vaginal ring, be sure to use an additional method of birth control. Contact your Women First Care Team for additional information.
Progestin-Only Hormonal Birth Control
Birth control options that contain only progestin include:
Some birth control pills contain only progestin (called the “mini pill”), which is useful for women who cannot or should not take estrogen, including women who are breastfeeding.
Progestin-only pills are taken on a 28-day cycle, and ALL 28 pills contain the active hormone. One pill should be taken every day at the same time, and there is NO placebo pill week. Breakthrough bleeding or spotting can occur at any time with progestin-only pills.
Nexplanon® is a single-rod progestin implant. About the size of a matchstick, this flexible plastic rod is inserted under the skin into the upper inner arm by your healthcare provider. It is effective for up to three years, but can be removed if pregnancy is desired sooner. Insertion and removal is done in the Women First office.
Nexplanon is one of the most effective methods of birth control. It provides three years of protection from pregnancy as progestin is slowly released. Irregular bleeding is the most bothersome side effect. Fertility returns rapidly after removal of the rod.
Intra-uterine devices, or IUDs, are small devices placed in your uterus to prevent pregnancy. They require no effort from you to maintain, and they can be removed by your doctor at any time. This makes them a form of longer-acting birth control that is quickly reversible if you decide you want to try to get pregnant.
Of course, no birth control is right for everyone and there are risks associated with IUDs that you should know about. Only you and your Women First healthcare provider can decide if an IUD is right for you.
Mirena is an progestin-only IUD, placed in your uterus, that releases small amounts of hormone to give you continuous birth control for as long as you want—for up to 5 years. It’s more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy, contains no estrogen, and can be removed by your healthcare provider at any time so you can try to get pregnant. Mirena also is used to lighten heavy periods and can be used for this purpose even if you do not need contraception.
Click here to learn more about Mirena IUD.
Kyleena is the smallest 5-year IUD that gives you 5-year, nonstop pregnancy prevention through a continuous low dose of progestin in the uterus. It’s more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy for each year of use, and 98.5% effective over five years. It’s easy to make sure that Kyleena is in place with a monthly thread check. And Kyleena is estrogen-free.
Click here to learn more about Kyleena IUD.
Skyla is a hormone-releasing IUD that is over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy for up to 3 years. Skyla releases small amounts of the hormone progestin into your uterus slowly and continuously. Estrogen-free, Skyla works to prevent pregnancy for up to 3 years and can be removed by your healthcare provider at any time for you to try to become pregnant.
All of the progestin-only methods have similar common side effects. None contain estrogen, so are good options for women who can’t take estrogen or are breastfeeding.
The biggest side effect is irregular bleeding for the first few months. It is usually lighter and less crampy, but can be very frequent—even daily—and annoying. After the first six months, most women have an occasional, light, random period and will not have a regular monthly period.
All of the progestin-only methods of contraception are good options to treat heavy, crampy periods.