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Sex + Relationships

Should You Start the Pill? Here’s the Lowdown

Just this May (Mother’s Day, in fact) marked the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill—when the Food and Drug Administration gave its seal of approval to the world’s first oral contraceptive. Now, half a century later, one in two college students takes it every day for reasons beyond just anticipating sex (like to control acne or moderate mood swings).

Deciding to go on the Pill means a lot more than going to a pharmacy with a doctor’s prescription in hand. “The birth control pill has a tremendous impact on the life of women and men throughout the world,” says Jenna Weintraub, Outreach and Education Specialist at Planned Parenthood in Rochester, N.Y. The Pill enables women to plan their future around whether or not it includes a child, ultimately providing decisions of education, employment, and lifestyle.
Big life decisions aren’t to be taken lightly.
Whether you’re considering going on the Pill for birth control or other reasons, Her Campus has pulled together a few points to consider before adding this everyday friend to your life.
Your lifestyle
First, know your lifestyle. How busy is your schedule? “If [a woman] forgets to take her medications or vitamins every day, that’s a telling sign it may be hard to take a birth control pill daily,” says Weintraub. Not following a strict schedule can mess with the Pill’s effectiveness and, in some cases, may lead to an unexpected pregnancy.

Worried about taking the Pill at the same time every day? “I’ve found it really helps to set an alarm on your phone around a time you know you will always be free, finished with classes, or between classes,” says Joanna Buffum, a Her Campus writer and student at Bowdoin College. Buffum sets hers phone alarm as a friendly reminder at 4 p.m. daily. Another easy way to remember is to take your pill every morning when you brush your teeth!
If you think you’re unlikely to remember to take your pill at the same time every day, you might want to look into other birth control options like a ring or patch, which you only have to worry about once a month or less.
Having the discussion (with your partner, doctor, and/or mom)
“In this country, it’s a problem talking about sex,” says Weintraub. But a healthy relationship consists of having good communication, and there are (potentially) three talks you should have before starting the Pill:

  1. Your doctor: Consult your gynecologist to learn about the different types of birth control pills and which may be the best fit for you. Your gyno will likely ask you about your family’s medical history, which you can brush up on with your Primary Care Physician (PCP). In some cases, if you’re looking to start the Pill for skin purposes, you’ll also want to have these conversations with your dermatologist.
  2. Your partner: If you’re planning on taking the Pill for “safe sex” reasons… “It’s good to talk about protection and birth control when you’re not in the bedroom,” says Weintraub, “like when you’re driving somewhere, or going for a walk. It makes it easier to talk about than when you’re naked.” Rather than it being a one-sided declaration of wanting to start the Pill, this conversation should being engaging and include how both of you feel about pregnancy as well as your options in an unintended pregnancy. 
  3. Your family: In many cases, you as the student may still be included within the family health insurance plan, in which case you’ll have to bring up the subject with parents. Let them know why you’re considering going on the Pill so that they can (hopefully) be supportive of your decision.  They may also have some valuable input for you.

A prescription for birth control can cost anywhere from $15 to $50 each month—a pretty penny for a college student to pay. To save, check with your health insurance providers; some providers will cover part of the cost. Also see what affordable options are made available at the local health clinic and Planned Parenthood.

You may even take a minute to talk to your doctor about the cost. When your doctor is writing out the prescription, mention that cost is an issue and ask if he or she would recommend any generic kind of a birth control pill. Generics still tend to be prescription-based and appear for many of the pills that have been on the market for a while (like Ortho Tri-Cyclen), but not for the newer ones (like Yaz)– and the generics tend to run cheaper than the brand name.
Perks to the Pill
When Jessica* started on the Pill five years ago as a junior in high school, she was told that certain pills could allow her to have fewer periods. “My doctor told me that it was a desirable side effect,” she says. Weintraub clarifies that progestin-only pills (also called “mini pills”) may create this effect, but if you’re taking a Combined Oral Contraceptive (COC)—which includes estrogen and progestin—you’ll want to check with your doctor and take a pregnancy test to make sure these missed periods don’t mean pregnancy. The Pill is 99 percent effective, but if you miss the routine by an hour it could interfere with its protection.
In addition to lighter, more manageable periods and PMS symptoms, the Pill is often recommended by dermatologists for clearing up skin. Up to 95 percent of women on the Pill reported skin improvement in a study by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, according to the health and fitness website LiveStrong.com. Not all brands have the same the same effectiveness in this area though, so ask your gynecologist or dermatologist about which would be the best fit for you.

On Weight Gain (and Other Not-So-Pleasant Side Effects)
Shannon*, a soon-to-be senior at Bowling Green State University, began taking the Pill after her freshman year of college to help for more consistent periods and to clear up skin. But even as she started considering the new routine, she worried about going up a jean size and increased moodiness, since she had heard that these might be side effects.
Though results differ on an individual basis, after starting the Pill, you can expect five extra pounds between weight gain and fluid retention, according to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Iowa Health Care. But both can be regulated by reducing salty foods in your diet and adding a bit of exercise. Initially, Shannon recalls putting on an extra couple of pounds, but worked them off with an added hour at the gym. She adds that there was a small perk in all of it: “I did go up a cup size.”
But studies have disproven this direct connection between the birth control pill and weight gain. “It’s hard to find good evidence that it causes weight gain,” says Weintraub. “While [the Pill] doesn’t directly affect weight gain, it may increase appetite.”
The Pill can also mess with your libido. Women who use birth control pills report less sexual desire than women who use other means of contraception, according to a study published in a 2006 edition of the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Birth control pills directly affect and manipulate a woman’s sex hormones. Take the sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG)—the same study shows that women who take the Pill appear to have increased levels of this hormone, which has been linked to decreased libido and sexual desire.
Risky Business
You may recognize these television commercials. Lawyers offering to pick a fight with the pill producers on your behalf if you’ve taken Yasmin (“Yaz”) because you may have experienced unpleasant and even dangerous side effects not clearly advertised: increased risk of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and kidney failure. Weintraub acknowledges that these risks are true but doesn’t quite agree with the dramatization of the commercials themselves. “I think it’s a bit irresponsible on the media’s behalf to not explain what risk actually means,” Weintraub says. “Really, the chance of having a heart attack or stroke is higher during pregnancy than when taking birth control pills.”
Smoking increases the probability of heart-related problems on the Pill, so if you’re a smoker, Weintraub suggests that wanting to start the Pill can serve as incentive to quit.
If after weighing these various elements—your ability to keep a routine, your personal incentives, and the risks associated with the Pill—you decide the birth control pill is for you, don’t forget to allow a month for your body to adjust before the contraceptive works. Most importantly, keep informed; for latest birth control developments and most up-to-date information, Weintraub recommends visiting your local Planned Parenthood.
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of these individuals.
Jenna Weintraub, Outreach and Educations Specialist, Planned Parenthood of Rochester, N.Y.
Joanna Buffum, Her Campus contributing writer and student at Bowdoin College
Kelly*, Syracuse University rising sophomore
Jessica*, Syracuse University rising senior
Shannon*, Bowling Green State University rising senior

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