Description and Brand Names

Drug information provided by: Micromedex


Oral contraceptives are known also as the Pill, OCs, BCs, BC tablets, or birth control pills. This medicine usually contains two types of hormones, estrogens and progestins and, when taken properly, prevents pregnancy. It works by stopping a woman's egg from fully developing each month. The egg can no longer accept a sperm and fertilization is prevented. Although oral contraceptives have other effects that help prevent a pregnancy from occurring, this is the main action.

Sometimes a woman's egg can still develop even though the medication is taken once each day, especially when more than 24 hours pass between two doses. In almost all cases when the medicine was taken properly and an egg develops, fertilization can still be stopped by oral contraceptives. This is because oral contraceptives also thicken cervical mucus at the opening of the uterus. This makes it hard for the partner's sperm to reach the egg. In addition, oral contraceptives change the uterus lining just enough so that an egg will not stop in the uterus to develop. All of these effects make it difficult to become pregnant when properly taking an oral contraceptive.

No contraceptive method is 100 percent effective. Studies show that fewer than one of each one hundred women correctly using oral contraceptives becomes pregnant during the first year of use. Birth control methods such as having surgery to become sterile or not having sex are more effective. Using condoms, diaphragms, progestin-only oral contraceptives, or spermicides is not as effective as using oral contraceptives containing estrogens and progestins. Discuss with your health care professional your options for birth control.

The triphasic cycle product of norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol (the brand name Ortho Tri-Cyclen) and norethindrone acetate and ethinyl estradiol (the brand name Estrostep) can be used for the treatment of moderate acne only if the patient is at least 15 years old, has acne that has not improved with topical anti-acne medicines, has gotten approval from her doctor, has begun to have menstrual periods, desires an oral contraceptive for birth control, and plans to stay on it for at least 6 months.

Sometimes these preparations can be used for other conditions as determined by your doctor.

Oral contraceptives are available only with your doctor's prescription.

Once a medicine has been approved for marketing for a certain use, experience may show that it is also useful for other medical problems. Although these uses are not included in product labeling, oral contraceptives are used in certain patients with the following medical conditions:

  • Amenorrhea (stopping of menses for several consecutive months)
  • Dysfunctional uterine bleeding (abnormal uterine bleeding)
  • Dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual bleeding)
  • Hypermenorrhea (excessive menstrual bleeding)
  • Emergency contraception within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse
  • Endometriosis (painful bleeding from uterine-like tissue that can grow in different parts of the female body)
  • Hirsutism in females (male-like hair growth)
  • Hyperandrogenism, ovarian (excessive production of male hormones)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (many problems that include amenorrhea, hirsutism, infertility, and many tiny cysts or sacs usually in both ovaries)

For patients taking this medicine for emergency contraception:

  • Must be taken with food within 72 hours of unprotected sexual intercourse. One single course (2 doses 12 hours apart) is a one-time emergency protection. Using more than one course in a month will reduce the effectiveness.
  • Because the hormones are strong, watch for danger signs. Call your doctor if you experience any severe pains in your leg, stomach, or chest; any vision or breathing changes; yellowing of skin; headaches; numbness; or trouble in speaking.
  • You may experience nausea so take it with food and call your doctor if you vomit the medicine.
  • Your menstrual period may start earlier than usual. If it doesn't start, call your doctor.

For patients taking this medicine for hirsutism:

  • You may need to use oral contraceptives for 6 to 12 months before you see less new hair growth.

For patients taking this medicine for endometriosis:

  • Sometimes instead of following the directions on the oral contraceptive's package, your doctor may ask you to follow different directions, such as taking the active tablets in the package each day without stopping for 6 to 9 months. This means that after 21 days you will start a new package of pills. If you are not sure about how to take this medicine, discuss any questions with your health care professional.
  • Also, your symptoms of endometriosis may worsen at first but with continued use of the oral contraceptives your symptoms should lessen and your condition improve.

Importance of Diet

Make certain your health care professional knows if you are on any special diet, such as a low-sodium or low-sugar diet.