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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : What are the advantages and disadvantages of combination birth control pills?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Joan Marie Bengtson, M.D., is assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproduction at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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August 05, 2011
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A:

A combination birth control pill contains two hormones, an estrogen and a progestin. The hormones in the pill prevent pregnancy by keeping your ovaries from releasing eggs. Pregnancy can't happen if there is no egg to meet the sperm. The pill also thins the lining of the uterus and thickens the cervical secretions. Both of these actions also interfere with the fertilization process.

The pill has many advantages as a form of contraception. If used correctly, the pill is highly effective at preventing pregnancy. The pill must be taken every day, preferably at about the same time, or the failure rate increases. However, it can be taken at any time that is convenient, so its use is not tied to when you have sex. The pill is also very safe for most women. Talk to your doctor to make sure you do not have a condition that would make using the pill a danger to you.

Another advantage of the pill is that it regulates the menstrual cycle. Most women have lighter and shorter periods while on the pill and are less likely to be anemic from menstrual blood loss. Using the pill can also reduce acne. Women who use the pill for at least one year also have a lower risk of uterine and ovarian cancer compared with non-users.

No method of contraception is perfect and the pill also has some disadvantages. Some women find taking the pill every day inconvenient or they have trouble remembering to take it. Some women have side effects such as nausea, headache, and break through bleeding (this is vaginal bleeding or spotting that takes place in between menstrual periods. This often happens while the body adjusts to the pill).

Serious complications are rare but can occur. Taking even a small risk may be unacceptable to some women. The serious complications associated with the use of the pill include heart disease, stroke, and blood clots. Complications occur most often in women with risk factors, such as smoking. Your doctor can let you know if the pill is safe for you based on your medical history.

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