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What you should know about ‘the pill’

Susan Neltner

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Ah…the sweet aroma of love. With each breath one can feel the wonderful vibrations of every step, dancing in tune with the magic of the night, conjuring up sights never before seen by man. If this is how romance affects you, especially on this Valentine’s Day, you better have the taste of the contraceptive known as the pill in your mouth.

To “know” the pill, one must first understand how it came into existence, how it works, and what affects it has on a woman’s body.

Sharon Snider a staff writer for the Food and Drug Administration said in her article “The Pill: 30 Years of Safety Concerns” that in the early 1950’s the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a coalition that was founded by Margaret Sanger in 1916 as the first birth control clinic, approached Dr. Gregory Pincus, a biologist, to develop an ideal contraceptive. A contraceptive that Planned Parenthood would consider to be “harmless, entirely reliable, simple, practical, universally applicable and aesthetically satisfactory to both husband and wife.” Lo and behold the creation of the pill.

Michele Kay, Campus Health nurse, described the way in which the birth control pill works. It works through the efforts of two hormones – progesterone and estrogen – that are similar to those that occur naturally in a woman’s ovaries.

“Basically these hormones regulate the menstrual cycle,” Kay said.

By taking the pill a woman increases the levels of the hormones in her body stopping her from ovulating. The woman will have her period on the fourth week of taking the pills, when she either stops taking the pill or replaces the actual pill with a placebo pill. This causes a drop in the hormone level, thereby allowing for the shedding of the lining of the uterus (endometrium).

“Throughout the month you are building up the uterus lining getting ready for fertilization of the egg, even though you are not releasing the egg,” Kay said. “You will still have your period at the end of your pill cycle because the walls of your uterus still build up in preparation as if the egg was going to be fertilized anyway.”

There are two basic types of birth control pills – combination pills and mini-pills. Combination pills contain estrogen and progesterone, while mini-pills contain only progesterone.

“Combination pills usually work by preventing a woman’s ovaries from releasing eggs,” according to Planned Parenthood. “Progesterone-only pills also can prevent ovulation. But they usually work by thickening the cervical mucus.” A thickening in the cervical mucus is like a sexual roadblock for sperm, it keeps sperm from joining with an egg.

“Basically the pill is a preventative,” Kay said. “It stops you from ovulating and it stops the egg from being fertilized.”

Of course the pill does not always stop the egg from being fertilized.

According to Planned Parenthood “Of 100 women who use the pill, only five will become pregnant during the first year of typical use.” By typical use, this survey means is that a woman who took the pill did not take it the same time everyday. While, if taken perfectly, meaning same time, everyday, chances of becoming pregnant are one out of 1000.

“By taking the pill at the same time everyday you are consistently getting yourself up to what is called therapeutic levels of the medication and keeping it there,” Kay said. If a woman is not consistent her hormones will not be in balance, Kay said. “If you took it at midnight, your hormonal level goes up. Then you take it again at 6 in the morning, and the hormones are up again. You are not keeping your hormones at an even level.”

Kay added that if the pill is not taken at the same time everyday a woman could experience breakthrough bleeding, one of the minor side effects associated with the pill. Others include headache, nausea, and mood swings. According to Snider “these side effects, especially nausea, usually subside within the first three months of use.”

Taking the pill may also be a factor in weight gain for some women. The pill can cause some increase in appetite due to the increase of hormones,” Kay said.

There seems to be discrepancy over whether the pill causes breast cancer. Planned Parenthood and Snider both agree, however, that even though there appears to be disagreement, most investigations have found that women who take the pill do not have an increased chance of developing breast cancer.

According to Planned Parenthood a woman should not take the pill if she:

Smokes more than 20 cigarettes a day and are 35 or older.

Has high blood pressure

Has a history of blood clots or vein inflammation

Has unexplained vaginal bleeding

Thinks she might be pregnant

Planned Parenthood said it is acceptable for a woman at high risk for heart disease or high cholesterol to take the pill, as long as she is under medical supervision.

There are some positive side effects of the pill in addition to its contraceptive use. “The pill has proven to have significant health benefits,” Snider said. “Studies show that the incidence of ovarian and endometrial cancers, benign cysts of the ovaries and breasts, and pelvic inflammatory disease decrease with pill use.”

Along with these health benefits, some women who take the pill experience regular periods, help with acne, less pain associated with premenstrual symptoms and menstrual cramps.

If a woman is sexually active, Kay recommends taking the pill. “We see a lot of young ladies that come in with accidental pregnancies,” Kay said. “It’s really a life altering thing.”

Kay added that even though the pill is good in preventing pregnancy it does not protect a woman from sexually transmitted diseases. In lieu of this information, she recommends the use of condoms during intercourse.

While there are some negative side effects of taking the pill, for many healthy women the pill provides a safe, effective means of birth control with some benefits towards a healthier lifestyle, Snider said.

Women interested in taking the pill should set up an appointment with her gynecologist or attend one of the reproductive health clinics that the Health and Counseling Center offers two Thursdays a month. During these clinics, a nurse practitioner from the Kenton County Health Clinic comes to campus to perform pelvic examinations and dispense the pill, as appropriate, free of charge. The dates open for appointments are March 13 and 27, April 10 and May 1. There are 26 to 28 spots available for each clinic, but they tend to fill up rather quickly, Kay said.

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What you should know about ‘the pill’