Combined Oral Contraceptives

Combined Oral Contraceptives

Key Points for Providers and Clients

• Take one pill every day. For greatest effectiveness a woman must take pills daily and start each new pack of pills on time.
• Bleeding changes are common but not harmful. Typically, irregular bleeding for the first few months and then lighter and more regular bleeding.
• Take any missed pill as soon as possible. Missing pills risks pregnancy and may make some side effects worse.
• Can be given to women at any time to start later. If pregnancy cannot be ruled out, a provider can give her pills to take later, when her monthly bleeding begins.

What Are Combined Oral Contraceptives?
• Pills that contain low doses of 2 hormones—a progestin and an estrogen—like the natural hormones progesterone and estrogen in a woman’s body.
• Combined oral contraceptives (COCs) are also called “the Pill,” low-dose combined pills, OCPs, and OCs.
• Work primarily by preventing the release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation).

Combined Oral Contraceptives

How Effective?
Effectiveness depends on the user: Risk of pregnancy is greatest when a woman starts a new pill pack 3 or more days late, or misses 3 or more pills near the beginning or end of a pill pack.

•As commonly used, about 8 pregnancies per 100 women using COCs over the first year. This means that 92 of every 100 women using COCs will not become pregnant.
• When no pill-taking mistakes are made, less than I pregnancy per 100 women using COCs over the first year (3 per 1,000 women).

Return of fertility after COCs are stopped: No delay
Protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs): None

Side Effects, Health Benefits, and Health Risks

Some users report the following:

• Changes in bleeding patterns including:
– Lighter bleeding and fewer days of bleeding
– Irregular bleeding
– Infrequent bleeding
– No monthly bleeding
• Headaches
• Dizziness
• Nausea
•Breast tenderness
•Weight change
• Mood changes
• Acne (can improve or worsen, but usually improves)

Other possible physical changes:
•Blood pressure increases a few points (mm Hg). When increase is due to COCs, blood pressure declines quickly after use of COCs stops.

Why Some Women Say They Like Combined Oral Contraceptives

• Are controlled by the woman
• Can be stopped at any time without a provider’s help
• Do not interfere with sex

Known Health Benefits

Help protect against:
• Risks of pregnancy
• Cancer of the lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer)
• Cancer of the ovary
• Symptomatic pelvic inflammatory disease

May help protect against:
• Ovarian cysts
• Iron-deficiency anemia

Reduce:
• Menstrual cramps
• Menstrual bleeding problems
• Ovulation pain
• Excess hair on face or body
• Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (irregular bleeding, acne, excess hair on face or body)
• Symptoms of endometriosis (pelvic pain, irregular bleeding)

Known Health Risks

Very rare:
• Blood clot in deep veins of legs or lungs (deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism)

Extremely rare:
• Stroke
• Heart attack

Correcting Misunderstandings

Combined oral contraceptives:

• Do not build up in a woman’s body. Women do not need a “rest” from taking COCs.
• Must be taken every day, whether or not a woman has sex that day.
• Do not make women infertile.
• Do not cause birth defects or multiple births.
• Do not change women’s sexual behavior.
• Do not collect in the stomach. Instead, the pill dissolves each day.
• Do not disrupt an existing pregnancy.

Facts About Combined Oral Contraceptives and Cancer

Ovarian and endometrial cancer
• Use of COCs helps protect users from 2 kinds of cancer—cancer of the ovaries and cancer of the lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer).
• This protection continues for 15 or more years after stopping use.

Breast cancer
• Research findings about COCs and breast cancer are difficult to interpret:

– Studies find that women who have used COCs more than 10 years ago face the same risk of breast cancer as similar women who have never used COCs. In contrast, current users of COCs and women who have used COCs within the past 10 years are slightly more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

—When a current or former COC user is diagnosed with breast cancer, the cancers are less advanced than cancers diagnosed in other women.

-It is unclear whether these findings are explained by earlier detection of existing breast cancers among COC users or by a biologic effect of COCs on breast cancer.

Cervical cancer

• Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that usually clears on its own without treatment, but sometimes persists.
• Use of COCs for 5 years or more appears to speed up the development of persistent HPV infection into cervical cancer. The number of cervical cancers associated with COC use is thought to be very small.
• If cervical screening is available, providers can advise COC users—and all other women—to be screened every 3 years (or as national guidelines recommend) to detect any precancerous changes on the cervix, which can be removed. Factors known to increase cervical cancer risk include having many children and smoking.

Who Can and Cannot Use Combined Oral Contraceptives

Safe and Suitable for Nearly All Women

Nearly all women can use COCs safely and effectively, including women who:
• Have or have not had children
• Are not married
• Are of any age, including adolescents and women over 40 years old
• Have just had an abortion or miscarriage
• Smoke cigarettes—if under 35 years old
• Have anemia now or had in the past
• Have varicose veins
• Are infected with HIV, whether or not on antiretroviral therapy

Women can begin using COCs:
• Without a pelvic examination
• Without any blood tests or other routine laboratory tests
• Without cervical cancer screening
• Without a breast examination
• Even when a woman is not having monthly bleeding at the time, if it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant

Medical Eligibility Criteria for
Combined Oral Contraceptives

Ask the client the questions below about known medical conditions. Examinations and tests are not necessary. If she answers “no” to all of the questions, then she can start COCs if she wants. If she answers “yes” to a question, follow the instructions. In some cases she can still start COCs. These questions also apply for the combined patch the and combined vaginal ring .

1. Are you breastfeeding a baby less than 6 months old?

□ NO □ YES

• If fully or nearly fully breastfeeding: Give her COCs and tell her to start taking them 6 months after giving birth or when breast milk is no longer the baby’s main food—whichever comes first.
• If partially breastfeeding: She can start COCs as soon as 6 weeks after childbirth.

2. Have you had a baby in the last 3 weeks that you are not breastfeeding?

□ NO □ YES Give her COCs now and tell her to start taking them 3 weeks after childbirth.

3. Do you smoke cigarettes?

□ NO □ YES If she is 35 years of age or older and smokes, do not provide COCs. Urge her to stop smoking and help her choose another method.

4. Do you have cirrhosis of the liver, a liver infection, or liver tumor? (Are her eyes or skin unusually yellow?
[signs of jaundice]) Have you ever had jaundice when using COCs?

□ NO □ YES If she reports serious active liver disease (jaundice,
active hepatitis, mild or severe cirrhosis, liver tumor) or ever had jaundice while using COCs, do not provide COCs. Help her choose a method without hormones. (She can use monthly injectables if she has had jaundice only with past COC use.)

5. Do you have high blood pressure?

□ NO □ YES If you cannot check blood pressure and she reports a history of high blood pressure, or if she is being treated for high blood pressure, do not provide COCs. Refer her for a blood pressure check if possible or help her choose a method without estrogen.

Check blood pressure if possible:

• If her blood pressure is below 140/90 mm Hg, provide COCs.

• If her systolic blood pressure is 140 mm Hg or higher or diastolic blood pressure is 90 or higher, do not provide COCs. Help her choose a method without estrogen, but not progestin-only injectables if systolic blood pressure is 160 or higher or diastolic pressure is 100 or higher.

(One blood pressure reading in the range of 140-159/90-99 mm Hg is not enough to diagnose high blood pressure. Give her a backup method* to use until she can return for another blood pressure check, or help her choose another method now if she prefers. If her blood pressure at next check is below 140/90, she can use COCs.)

6. Have you had diabetes for more than 20 years or damage to your arteries, vision, kidneys, or nervous system caused by diabetes?

□ NO □ YES Do not provide COCs. Help her choose a method without estrogen but not progestin-only injectables.

7. Do you have gallbladder disease now or take medication for gallbladder disease?

□ NO □ YES Do not provide COCs. Help her choose another method but not the combined patch or combined vaginal ring.

8. Have you ever had a stroke, blood clot in your legs or lungs, heart attack, or other serious heart problems?

□ NO □ YES If she reports heart attack, heart disease due to blocked or narrowed arteries, or stroke, do not provide COCs. Help her choose a method without estrogen but not progestin-only injectables. If she reports a current blood clot in the deep veins of the legs or lungs (not superficial clots), help her choose a method without hormones.

9. Do you have or have you ever had breast cancer?

□ NO □ YES Do not provide COCs. Help her choose a method without hormones.

10. Do you sometimes see a bright area of lost vision in the eye before a very bad headache (migraine aura)? Do you get throbbing, severe head pain, often on one side of the head, that can last from a few hours to several days and can cause nausea or vomiting (migraine headaches)? Such headaches are often made worse by light, noise, or moving about.

□ NO □ YES If she has migraine aura at any age, do not provide COCs. If she has migraine headaches without aura and is age 35 or older, do not provide COCs. Help these women choose a method without estrogen. If she is under 35 and has migraine headaches without aura, she can use COCs .

11. Are you taking medications for seizures? Are you taking rifampicin for tuberculosis or other illness?

□ NO □ YES If she is taking barbiturates, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, phenytoin, primidone, topiramate, or rifampicin, do not provide COCs. They can make COCs less effective. Help her choose another method but not progestin-only pills or implants.

12. Are you planning major surgery that will keep you from walking for one week or more?

□ NO □ YES If so, she can start COCs 2 weeks after the surgery. Until she can start COCs, she should use a backup method.

13. Do you have several conditions that could increase your chances of heart disease (coronary artery disease) or stroke, such as older age, smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes?

□ NO □ YES Do not provide COCs. Help her choose a method without estrogen but not progestin-only injectables.

For complete classifications, see Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use. Be sure to explain the health benefits and risks and the side effects of the method that the client will use. Also, point out any conditions that would make the method inadvisable, when relevant to the client.

Using Clinical Judgment in Special Cases

Usually, a woman with any of the conditions listed below should not use COCs. In special circumstances, however, when other, more appropriate methods are not available or acceptable to her, a qualified provider who can carefully assess a specific woman’s condition and situation may decide that she can use COCs. The provider needs to consider the severity of her condition and, for most conditions, whether she will have access to follow-up.

• Not breastfeeding and less than 3 weeks since giving birth
• Primarily breastfeeding between 6 weeks and 6 months since giving birth
• Age 35 or older and smokes fewer than 15 cigarettes a day
• High blood pressure (systolic blood pressure between 140 and 159 mm Hg or diastolic blood pressure between 90 and 99 mm Hg)
• Controlled high blood pressure, where continuing evaluation is possible
• History of high blood pressure, where blood pressure cannot be taken (including pregnancy-related high blood pressure)
• Mild cirrhosis of the liver or history of jaundice while using COCs in the past
• Gall bladder disease (current or medically treated)
• Age 35 or older and has migraine headaches without aura
• Younger than age 35 and has migraine headaches without aura that have developed or have gotten worse while using COCs
•  Had breast cancer more than 5 years ago, and it has not returned
• Taking barbiturates, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, phenytoin, primidone, topiramate, or rifampicin. A backup contraceptive method should also be used because these medications reduce the effectiveness of COCs.
•  Diabetes for more than 20 years or damage to arteries, vision, kidneys, or nervous system caused by diabetes
• Multiple risk factors for arterial cardiovascular disease such as older age, smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure

Combined Oral Contraceptives for Women With HIV

•Women who are infected with HIV, have AIDS, or are on antiretroviral (ARV) therapy can safely use COCs.
•Urge these women to use condoms along with COCs. Used consistently and correctly, condoms help prevent transmission of HIV and other STIs. Condoms also provide extra contraceptive protection for women on ARV therapy. It is not certain whether ARV medications reduce the effectiveness of COCs.

Providing Combined Oral Contraceptives

When to Start
IMPORTANT: A woman can start using COCs any time she wants if it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant. To be reasonably certain she is not pregnant, use the Pregnancy Checklist . Also, a woman can be given COCs at any time and told when to start taking them.

 
Woman’s situation When to start
Having menstrual cycles or switching from a nonhormonal method  Any time of the month
• If she is starting within 5 days after the start of her monthly bleeding, no need for a backup method.• If it is more than 5 days after the start of her monthly bleeding, she can start COCs any time it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant. She will need a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills. (If you cannot be reasonably certain, give her COCs now and tell her to start taking them during her next monthly bleeding.)• If she is switching from an IUD, she can start COCs immediately.
Switching from a hormonal method • Immediately, if she has been using the hormonal method consistently and correctly or if it is otherwise reasonably certain she is not pregnant. No need to wait for her next monthly bleeding. No need for a backup method.• If she is switching from injectables, she can begin taking COCs when the repeat injection would have been given. No need for a backup method.
Fully or nearly fully breastfeeding
Less than 6 months after giving birth
• Give her COCs and tell her to start taking them 6 months after giving birth or when breast milk is no longer the baby’s main food— whichever comes first.
Fully or nearly fully breastfeeding
More than 6 months after giving birth
• If her monthly bleeding has not returned, she can start COCs any time it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant.She will need a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills. (If you cannot be reasonably certain, give her COCs now and tell her to start taking them during her next monthly bleeding.)• If her monthly bleeding has not returned, she can start COCs as advised for women having menstrual cycles.
Partially breastfeeding
Less than 6 weeks after giving birth
• Give her COCs and tell her to start taking them 6 weeks after giving birth.• Also give her a backup method to use until 6 weeks since giving birth if her monthly bleeding returns before this time.
Partially breastfeeding
More than 6 weeks after giving birth
• If her monthly bleeding has not returned, she can start COCs any time it isreasonably certain she is not pregnant. She will need a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills. (If you cannot be reasonably certain, give her COCs now and tell her to start taking them during her next monthly bleeding.)• If her monthly bleeding has returned, she can start COCs as advised for women having menstrual cycles.
Not breastfeeding
Less than 4 weeks after giving birth
• She can start COCs at any time on days 21-28 after giving birth. Give her pills any time to start during these 7 days. No need for a backup method.
Not breastfeeding
More than 4 weeks after giving birth
• If her monthly bleeding has not returned, she can start COCs any time it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant. She will need a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills. (If you cannot be reasonably certain, give her COCs now and tell her to start taking them during her next monthly bleeding.)• If her monthly bleeding has returned, she can start COCs as advised for women having menstrual cycles.
No monthly bleeding (not related to childbirth or breastfeeding) • She can start COCs any time it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant. She will need a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills.
After miscarriage or abortion • Immediately. If she is starting within 7 days after first- or second-trimester miscarriage or abortion, no need for a backup method.• If it is more than 7 days after first- or second- trimester miscarriage or abortion, she can start COCs any time it is reasonably certain she is not pregnant. She will need a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills. (If you cannot be reasonably certain, give her COCs now and tell her to start taking them during her next monthly bleeding.)
After taking emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) • She can start COCs the day after she finishes taking the ECPs. There is no need to wait for her next monthly bleeding to start her pills.
— A new COC user should begin a new pill pack.
— A continuing user who needed ECPs due to pill-taking errors can continue where she left off with her current pack.
— All women will need to use a backup method for the first 7 days of taking pills.

Giving Advice on Side Effects

IMPORTANT: Thorough counseling about bleeding changes and other side effects is an important part of providing the method. Counseling about bleeding changes may be the most important help a woman needs to keep using the method.

Describe the most common side effects
• In the first few months, bleeding at unexpected times (irregular bleeding). Then lighter, shorter, and more regular monthly bleeding.
• Headaches, breast tenderness, weight change, and possibly other side effects.

Explain about these side effects
• Side effects are not signs of illness.
• Most side effects usually become less or stop within the first few months of using COCs.
• Common, but some women do not have them.

Explain what to do in case of side effects
• Keep taking COCs. Skipping pills risks pregnancy and can make some side effects worse.
• Take each pill at the same time every day to help reduce irregular bleeding and also help with remembering.
• Take pills with food or at bedtime to help avoid nausea.
• The client can come back for help if side effects bother her.

Explaining How to Use

1. Give pills
• Give as many packs as possible—even as much as a year’s supply (13 packs).

2. Explain pill pack
• Show which kind of pack—21 pills or 28 pills. With 28-pill packs, point out that the last 7 pills are a different color and do not contain hormones.
• Show how to take the first pill from the pack and then how to follow the directions or arrows on the pack to take the rest of the pills.

3. Give key instruction
• Take one pill each day- until the pack is empty.
• Discuss cues for taking a pill every day. Linking pill-taking to a daily activity-such as cleaning her teeth-may help her remember.
• Taking pills at the same time each day helps to remember them. It also may help reduce some side effects.

4. Explain starting next pack
• 28-pill packs: When she finishes one pack, she should take the first pill from the next pack on the very next day.
• 21 -pill packs: After she takes the last pill from one pack, she should wait 7 days—no more— and then take the first pill from the next pack.
• It is very important to start the next pack on time. Starting a pack late risks pregnancy.

5. Provide backup method and explain use
• Sometimes she may need to use a backup method, such as when she misses pills.
• Backup methods include abstinence, male or female condoms, spermicides, and withdrawal. Tell her that spermicides and withdrawal are the least effective contraceptive methods. Give her condoms, if possible.

Supporting the User

Managing Missed Pills

It is easy to forget a pill or to be late in taking it. COC users should know what to do if they forget to take pills. If a woman misses one or more pills, she should follow the instructions below. Use the tool on the inside back cover to help explain these instructions to the client.

Making Up Missed Pills With 30-35 µg Estrogen

Key message
• Take a missed hormonal pill as soon as possible.
• Keep taking pills as usual, one each day. (She may take 2 pills at the same time or on the same day.)

Missed 1 or 2 pills? Started new pack 1 or 2 days late?
• Take a hormonal pill as soon as possible.
• Little or no risk of pregnancy.

Missed 3 or more pills in the first or second week? Started new pack 3 or more days late?
• Take a hormonal pill as soon as possible.
• Use a backup method for the next 7 days.
• Also, if she had sex in the past 5 days, can consider ECPs .

Missed 3 or more pills in the third week?
• Take a hormonal pill as soon as possible.
• Finish all hormonal pills in the pack.Throw away the 7 nonhormonal pills in a 28-pill pack.
• Start a new pack the next day.
• Use a backup method for the next 7 days.
• Also, if she had sex in the past 5 days, can consider ECPs .

Missed any non-hormonal pills? (last 7 pills in 28-pill pack)
• Discard the missed nonhormonal pill(s).
• Keep taking COCs, one each day. Start the new pack as usual.

Severe vomiting or diarrhea
• If she vomits within 2 hours after taking a pill, she should take another pill from her pack as soon as possible, then keep taking pills as usual.
• If she has vomiting or diarrhea for more than 2 days, follow instructions for 1 or 2 missed pills, above.

“Come Back Any Time”: Reasons to Return

Assure every client that she is welcome to come back any time—for example, if she has problems, questions, or wants another method; she has any major change in health status; or she thinks she might be pregnant. Also if:

• She lost her pills or started a new pack more than 3 days late and also had sex during this time. She may wish to consider ECPs.

General health advice: Anyone who suddenly feels that something is seriously wrong with her health should immediately seek medical care from a nurse or doctor. Her contraceptive method is most likely not the cause of the condition, but she should tell the nurse or doctor what method she is using.

Planning the Next Visit
1. Encourage her to come back for more pills before she uses up her supply of pills.
2. An annual visit is recommended.
3. Some women can benefit from contact after 3 months of COC use.This offers an opportunity to answer any questions, help with any problems, and check on correct use.

Helping Continuing Users

1. Ask how the client is doing with the method and whether she is satisfied. Ask if she has any questions or anything to discuss.
2. Ask especially if she is concerned about bleeding changes. Give her any information or help that she needs.
3. Ask if she often has problems remembering to take a pill every day. If so, discuss ways to remember, making up missed pills, and ECPs, or choosing another method.
4. Give her more pill packs—a full year’s supply (13 packs), if possible. Plan her next resupply visit before she will need more pills.
5. Every year or so, check blood pressure if possible.
6. Ask a long-term client if she has had any new health problems since her last visit. Address problems as appropriate. For new health problems that may require switching methods.
7. Ask a long-term client about major life changes that may affect her needs—particularly plans for having children and STI/HIV risk. Follow up as needed.

Managing Any Problems

Problems Reported as Side Effects or Problems With Use

May or may not be due to the method.

• Problems with side effects affect women’s satisfaction and use of COCs. They deserve the provider’s attention. If the client reports side effects or problems, listen to her concerns, give her advice, and, if appropriate, treat.
• Encourage her to keep taking a pill every day even if she has side effects. Missing pills can risk pregnancy and may make some side effects worse.
• Many side effects will subside after a few months of use. For a woman whose side effects persist, give her a different COC formulation, if available, for at least 3 months.
• Offer to help the client choose another method—now, if she wishes, or if problems cannot be overcome.

Irregular bleeding (bleeding at unexpected timesthat bothers the client)
• Reassure her that many women using COCs experience irregular bleeding. It is not harmful and usually becomes less or stops after the first few months of use.

• Other possible causes of irregular bleeding include:
– Missed pills
– Taking pills at different times every day
– Vomiting or diarrhea
– Taking anticonvulsants or rifampicin

• To reduce irregular bleeding:
– Urge her to take a pill each day and at the same time each day.
– Teach her to make up for missed pills properly, including after vomiting or diarrhea .
– For modest short-term relief, she can try 800 mg ibuprofen 3 times daily after meals for 5 days or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), beginning when irregular bleeding starts. NSAIDs provide some relief of irregular bleeding for implants, progestin-only injectables, and IUDs, and they may also help for COCs.
– If she has been taking the pills for more than a few months and NSAIDs do not help, give her a different COC formulation, if available. Ask her to try the new pills for at least 3 months.

• If irregular bleeding continues or starts after several months of normal or no monthly bleeding, or you suspect that something may be wrong for other reasons, consider underlying conditions unrelated to method use.

No monthly bleeding
• Ask if she is having any bleeding at all. (She may have just a small stain on her underclothing and not recognize it as monthly bleeding.) If she is, reassure her.
• Reassure her that some women using COCs stop having monthly bleeding, and this is not harmful. There is no need to lose blood every month. It is similar to not having monthly bleeding during pregnancy. She is not infertile. Blood is not building up inside her. (Some women are happy to be free from monthly bleeding.)
• Ask if she has been taking a pill every day. If so, reassure her that she is not likely to be pregnant. She can continue taking her COCs as before.
• Did she skip the 7-day break between packs (21-day packs) or skip the 7 nonhormonal pills (28-day pack)? If so, reassure her that she is not pregnant. She can continue using COCs.
• If she has missed hormonal pills or started a new pack late:
– She can continue using COCs.
– Tell a woman who has missed 3 or more pills or started a new pack 3 or more days late to return if she has signs and symptoms of early pregnancy .

Ordinary headaches (nonmigrainous)
• Try the following (one at a time):
– Suggest aspirin (325-650 mg), ibuprofen (200-400 mg), paracetamol (325-1000 mg), or other pain reliever.
– Some women get headaches during the hormone-free week (the 7 days a woman does not take hormonal pills).
• Any headaches that get worse or occur more often during COC use should be evaluated.

Nausea or dizziness
• For nausea, suggest taking COCs at bedtime or with food.
If symptoms continue:
• Consider locally available remedies.
• Consider extended use if her nausea comes after she starts a new pill pack.

Breast tenderness
• Recommend that she wear a supportive bra (including during strenuous activity and sleep).
• Try hot or cold compresses.
• Suggest aspirin (325-650 mg), ibuprofen (200-400 mg), paracetamol (325-1000 mg), or other pain reliever.
• Consider locally available remedies.

Weight change
• Review diet and counsel as needed.

Mood changes or changes in sex drive
• Some women have changes in mood during the hormone-free week (the 7 days when a woman does not take hormonal pills).
• Ask about changes in her life that could affect her mood or sex drive, including changes in her relationship with her partner. Give her support as appropriate.
• Clients who have serious mood changes such as major depression should be referred for care.
• Consider locally available remedies.

Acne
• Acne usually improves with COC use. It may worsen for a few women.
• If she has been taking pills for more than a few months and acne persists, give her a different COC formulation, if available. Ask her to try the new pills for at least 3 months.
• Consider locally available remedies.

New Problems That May Require Switching Methods

May or may not be due to the method.

Unexplained vaginal bleeding (that suggests a medical condition not related to the method) or heavy or prolonged bleeding
• Refer or evaluate by history and pelvic examination. Diagnose and treat as appropriate.
• She can continue using COCs while her condition is being evaluated.
• If bleeding is caused by sexually transmitted infection or pelvic inflammatory disease, she can continue using COCs during treatment.

Starting treatment with anticonvulsants or rifampicin
• Barbiturates, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, phenytoin, primidone, topiramate, and rifampicin may make COCs less effective. If using these medications long-term, she may want a different method, such as monthly injectables, progestin-only injectables, or a copper-bearing or hormonal IUD.
• If using these medications short-term, she can use a backup method along with COCs.

Migraine headaches
• Regardless of her age, a woman who develops migraine headaches, with or without aura, or whose migraine headaches become worse while using COCs should stop using COCs.
• Help her choose a method without estrogen.

Circumstances that will keep her from walking for one week or more
• If she is having major surgery, or her leg is in a cast, or for other reasons she will be unable to move about for several weeks, she should:
-Tell her doctors that she is using COCs.
– Stop taking COCs and use a backup method during this period.
– Restart COCs 2 weeks after she can move about again.

Certain serious health conditions (suspected heart or liver disease, high blood pressure, blood clots in deep veins of legs or lungs, stroke, breast cancer, damage to arteries, vision, kidneys, or nervous system caused by diabetes, or gall bladder disease).
• Tell her to stop taking COCs.
• Give her a backup method to use until the condition is evaluated.
• Refer for diagnosis and care if not already under care.

Suspected pregnancy
• Assess for pregnancy.
• Tell her to stop taking COCs if pregnancy is confirmed.
• There are no known risks to a fetus conceived while a woman is taking COCs .

Extended and Continuous Use of Combined Oral Contraceptives
Some COC users do not follow the usual cycle of 3 weeks taking hormonal pills followed by one week without hormones. Some women take hormonal pills for 12 weeks without a break, followed by one week of nonhormonal pills (or no pills). This is extended use. Other women take hormonal pills without any breaks at all. This is continuous use. Monophasic pills are recommended for such use .

Women easily manage taking COCs in different ways when properly advised how to do so. Many women value controlling when they have monthly bleeding—if any—and tailoring pill use as they wish.

Benefits of Extended and Continuous Use
• Women have vaginal bleeding only 4 times a year or not at all.
• Reduces how often some women suffer headaches, premenstrual syndrome, mood changes, and heavy or painful bleeding during the week without hormonal pills.

Disadvantages of Extended and Continuous Use
• Irregular bleeding may last as long as the first 6 months of use— especially among women who have never before used COCs.
• More supplies needed—15 to 17 packs every year instead of 13.

Extended Use Instructions

• Skip the last week of pills (without hormones) in 3 packs in a row. (21-day users skip the 7-day waits between the first 3 packs.) No backup method is needed during this time.
• Take all 4 weeks of pills in the 4th pack. (21-day users take all 3 weeks of pills in the 4th pack.) Expect some bleeding during this 4th week.
• Start the next pack of pills the day after taking the last pill in the 4th pack. (21-day users wait 7-days before starting the next pack.)

Continuous Use Instructions
Take one hormonal pill every day for as long as she wishes to use COCs. If bothersome irregular bleeding occurs, a woman can stop taking pills for 3 or 4 days and then start taking hormonal pills continuously again.

Questions and Answers About Combined Oral Contraceptives

1. Should a woman take a “rest” from COCs after taking them for a time?

No. There is no evidence that taking a “rest” is helpful. In fact, taking a “rest” from COCs can lead to unintended pregnancy. COCs can safely be used for many years without having to stop taking them periodically.

2. If a woman has been taking COCs for a long time, will she still be protected from pregnancy after she stops taking COCs?

No. A woman is protected only as long as she takes her pills regularly.

3. How long does it take to become pregnant after stopping COCs?

Women who stop using COCs can become pregnant as quickly as women who stop nonhormonal methods. COCs do not delay the return of a woman’s fertility after she stops taking them. The bleeding pattern a woman had before she used COCs generally returns after she stops taking them. Some women may have to wait a few months before their usual bleeding pattern returns.

4. Do COCs cause abortion?

No. Research on COCs finds that they do not disrupt an existing pregnancy. They should not be used to try to cause an abortion. They will not do so.

5. Do COCs cause birth defects? Will the fetus be harmed if a woman accidentally takes COCs while she is pregnant?

No. Good evidence shows that COCs will not cause birth defects and will not otherwise harm the fetus if a woman becomes pregnant while taking COCs or accidentally starts to take COCs when she is already pregnant.

6. Do COCs cause women to gain or lose a lot of weight?

No. Most women do not gain or lose weight due to COCs. Weight changes naturally as life circumstances change and as people age. Because these changes in weight are so common, many women think that COCs cause these gains or losses in weight. Studies find, however, that, on average, COCs do not affect weight. A few women experience sudden changes in weight when using COCs. These changes reverse after they stop taking COCs. It is not known why these women respond to COCs in this way.

7. Do COCs change women’s mood or sex drive?

Generally, no. Some women using COCs report these complaints. The great majority of COC users do not report any such changes, however, and some report that both mood and sex drive improve. It is difficult to tell whether such changes are due to the COCs or to other reasons. Providers can help a client with these problems . There is no evidence that COCs affect women’s sexual behavior.

8. What can a provider say to a client asking about COCs and breast cancer?

The provider can point out that both COC users and women who do not use COCs can have breast cancer. In scientific studies breast cancer was slightly more common among women using COCs and those who had used COCs in the past 10 years than among other women. Scientists do not know whether or not COCs actually caused the slight increase in breast cancers. It is possible that the cancers were already there before COC use but were found sooner in COC users.

9. Can COCs be used as a pregnancy test?

No. A woman may experience some vaginal bleeding (a “withdrawal bleed”) as a result of taking several COCs or one full cycle of COCs, but studies suggest that this practice does not accurately identify who is or is not pregnant. Thus, giving a woman COCs to see if she has bleeding later is not recommended as a way to tell if she is pregnant. COCs should not be given to women as a pregnancy test of sorts because they do not produce accurate results.

10. Must a woman have a pelvic examination before she can start COCs or at follow-up visits?

No. Instead, asking the right questions usually can help to make reasonably certain that a woman is not pregnant . No condition that could be detected by a pelvic examination rules out COC use.

11. Can women with varicose veins use COCs?

Yes. COCs are safe for women with varicose veins. Varicose veins are enlarged blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. They are not dangerous. They are not blood clots, nor are these veins the deep veins in the legs where a blood clot can be dangerous (deep vein thrombosis). A woman who has or has had deep vein thrombosis should not use COCs.

12. Can a woman safely take COCs throughout her life?

Yes. There is no minimum or maximum age for COC use. COCs can be an appropriate method for most women from onset of monthly bleeding (menarche) to menopause .

13. Can women who smoke use COCs safely?

Women younger than age 35 who smoke can use low-dose COCs. Women age 35 and older who smoke should choose a method without estrogen or, if they smoke fewer than 15 cigarettes a day, monthly injectables. Older women who smoke can take the progestin-only pill if they prefer pills. All women who smoke should be urged to stop smoking.

14. What if a client wants to use COCs but it is not reasonably certain that she is not pregnant after using the pregnancy checklist?

If pregnancy tests are not available, a woman can be given COCs to take home with instructions to begin their use within 5 days after the start of her next monthly bleeding. She should use a backup method until then.

15. Can COCs be used as emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) after unprotected sex?

Yes. As soon as possible, but no more than 5 days after unprotected sex, a woman can take COCs as ECPs. Progestin-only pills, however, are more effective and cause fewer side effects such as nausea and stomach upset.

16. What are the differences among monophasic, biphasic, and triphasic pills?

Monophasic pills provide the same amount of estrogen and progestin in every hormonal pill. Biphasic and triphasic pills change the amount of estrogen and progestin at different points of the pill-taking cycle. For biphasic pills, the first 10 pills have one dosage, and then the next 11 pills have another level of estrogen and progestin. For triphasic pills, the first 7 or so pills have one dosage, the next 7 pills have another dosage, and the last 7 hormonal pills have yet another dosage. All prevent pregnancy in the same way. Differences in side effects, effectiveness, and continuation appear to be slight.

17. Is it important for a woman to take her COCs at the same time each day?

Yes, for 2 reasons. Some side effects may be reduced by taking the pill at the same time each day. Also, taking a pill at the same time each day can help women remember to take their pills more consistently. Linking pill taking with a daily activity also helps women remember to take their pills.