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Should Birth Control Pills Be Available Over the Counter?

Monday, February 17th, 2014

It’s a hot debate topic: should women really be required to obtain a prescription for birth control pills? Shouldn’t the most popular form of birth control be available over the counter (OTC)?

Proponents of making oral contraceptives prescription-free say that more access to the pill would lead to fewer unintended pregnancies. To be sure, there are women who would take birth control pills if they didn’t have to see a physician to get them and if the overall cost were lower. Women commonly site access, convenience, and cost as reasons why they do not use a consistent contraception method.

Those in favor of OTC oral contraceptives also say that the benefits of making them more available outweigh the risks, as these pills are widely prescribed and generally safe. There is no argument that access to birth control is very important. Unintended pregnancy has devastating emotional and financial effects on a woman’s life, often ensuring poverty, inability to continue her education, and much more.

However, the risks of taking birth control pills without medical advice are substantial. If they were to start being sold without prescriptions, it’s a safe bet that many women would not receive important medical counseling. For example, one of the reasons birth controls require prescriptions is that they have known drug interactions and potentially dangerous side effects.

For example, antibiotics can interfere with the effectiveness of the pill. Physicians counsel women on drug interaction dangers like this when they dispense prescriptions. Women who buy the pill over the counter may not realize that if they also take an antibiotic, they need a backup method of birth control that month. In addition, birth controls pills are completely useless against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They are not a replacement for condoms.

And if a woman doesn’t have to see her doctor to obtain a prescription for birth control pills, might she be more likely to skip seeing her doctor altogether for longer periods of time? This certainly would not be an issue for all women, but the ones who go to the doctor only because they must to get the pill would encounter the additional risks involved in not obtaining regular preventive checkups, which can reveal health problems such as STIs and some cancers in their early (and treatable) stages.

In addition, women who smoke and take birth control pills have a much higher risk of strokes, heart attacks, and death.

Birth control pills are a great option for contraception. They are easy to use, can’t be neglected in the heat of the moment (although they be forgotten earlier in the day), are noninvasive, and do not have lasting effects on fertility. However, the risks of using them and the need to use them properly call for medical advice before beginning them, at the very least.

You can find more information on birth control pills and other contraceptive methods in my book, Inside Information for Women.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Should you be worried about the blot clot risk with newer birth control pills?

Monday, November 21st, 2011

You might have read the news that YAZ and Yasmin, two newer birth control pills, are riskier to take than older contraceptives due to higher potential for blood clot formation.

But it’s important to put this into perspective. No matter what birth control pill you use, blood clots are a possibility, if an uncommon one. What you might not know is that blood clots are even more common in pregnancy. Fortunately, the vast majority of the millions of women who get pregnant and give birth each year don’t suffer blood clots. Just as millions of women take birth control pills with no such side effects.

So, is there a unique problem with YAZ? Yes, but not the one identified in the headlines. The problem is in the marketing.

YAZ was promoted to women as a pill for bloating and acne in addition to its contraceptive effects. While that might be a good marketing strategy, it’s not a good medical one. Contraceptives are for birth control, and the best one for you, based on your medical history, might have nothing to do with acne. People shouldn’t pick their birth control the way they pick their toothpaste—on the basis of consumer advertising. You should consult your doctor who will look at your history and decide what form of contraception meets your needs. If your family has a history of strokes, blood clots, or thrombophlebitis (a blood clot that causes swelling in a vein), your doctor will almost certainly order advanced testing due to the possibility that any birth control pill—YAZ, Yasmin, or older medicines—might be inappropriate for your condition.

But if your doctor has already determined that YAZ or Yasmin is a safe bet, and you’re on one of these now? Keep taking it unless your doctor says otherwise. The alternative could be unintended pregnancy. And pregnancy, ironically enough, is more likely to cause a blood clot than your birth control pills.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Free Birth Control Coverage is Now the Rule

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

In keeping with the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations that free birth control be made available to all under their insurance policies, a new rule from the White House mandates birth control coverage without co-pays or deductibles. The new rules also cover domestic violence screening and breastfeeding assistance without co-pays or deductibles.

Starting Aug. 1, 2012, new health insurance plans will be required to cover women’s preventive care without charging a co-pay or deductible. The new guidelines require health insurers to provide FDA-approved birth control, including emergency contraception such as the morning-after pill, HIV screenings, and well-women visits, among other services.

The guidelines also include an amendment that allows religious institutions that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Free Birth Control For All? Yes!

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

When you’re on a strict budget, out-of-pocket costs can convince a woman to forego birth control. But getting pregnant is a much more expensive proposition and comes with a lifelong commitment — one that many women are neither emotionally or financially ready to make.

The new health care law requires the Department of Health and Human Services to create a list of health services that new health insurance plans must provide without deductibles or co-pays. And the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) has prepared a report recommending that birth control be on that list.

…the Guttmacher Institute estimates that 98 percent of sexually active women will use contraception at some point during their reproductive years, and that cost concerns are frequently cited as a reason for inconsistent use or use of a less then optimal method.


In fact, Guttmacher said in testimony submitted to the IoM earlier this year, “Women citing cost concerns were twice as likely as other women to rely on condoms or less effective methods like withdrawal or periodic abstinence.”

Along with the recommendations concerning birth control, the IOM recommended a number of other preventive care services for women be made available without deductibles or co-pays:

…annual “well-woman” visits; screening of pregnant women for gestational diabetes; screening for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV; more support for breast-feeding mothers; and counseling and screening for possible domestic violence.

I urge HHS Secretary Sibelius to accept the IOM recommendations. Women’s health issues have taken a backseat for too long.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

The new, several-mornings-after pill

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The FDA has just approved an emergency contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy if taken up to five days after intercourse.

The new drug, ulipristal acetate (ella), will be available by prescription only, unlike the so-called “morning-after pill,” levonorgestrel, which can be bought over-the-counter.

While ella is not the first emergency contraceptive to be approved, it gives women a wider window of opportunity to prevent pregnancy than previous emergency contraceptives such as levonorgestrel, which must be taken within 72 hours to be effective.

Although it’s been used in Europe for the past year, ella won’t be available here in the U.S. for another two to three months. And there are still risks and side-effects associated with it, as with all drugs. Still, the introduction of a new emergency alternative is good news for women and their doctors, in preventing unintended pregnancy.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD. MPH

Overweight or Obese? Don’t Count On Your Birth Control Pills.

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Since the pill first appeared on the scene, about 50 years ago, women have felt secure knowing that they had an almost foolproof way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. And that’s been mostly true.

But maybe not for all women.

If you’re overweight or obese, recent studies suggest that birth control pills might not be as effective for you as they are for more slender women:

“In one study of oral contraceptive pills, women with a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight range (a BMI of 25 or more) had a higher risk of pregnancy that those in the normal weight range. In another study of contraceptive skin patches, higher body weight — not higher BMI — was associated with higher risks of pregnancy.”

In addition to the sobering news about the lessened effectiveness of hormonal birth control, these birth control methods are thought to slightly increase a woman’s risks of heart disease, high blood pressure and other conditions. When you consider that overweight and obese women are already at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and other ills, and that pregnancy is a riskier venture, overall, for obese women and their babies, you have a new incentive for getting your weight down.

I know it isn’t easy. I’ve struggled with weight myself and can attest to the fact that it’s a constant battle. But it’s a battle we must fight – and win. And now, we have one more reason to do it.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Pregnancy and the pill

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

For many women, taking the pill is more a matter of delaying pregnancy until the time is right rather than preventing it all together.

So, the big question becomes, how long after you stop taking the pill can you expect to become pregnant? No two women are alike but, generally speaking, pregnancy is possible the next time you ovulate. You may ovulate within two weeks after finishing up your last package of birth control pills. So, theoretically, you could become pregnant almost immediately. However, as we all know, there are many variables. Some couples try for years to become parents without success.

It almost seems an unfair trick of the heavens that it’s sometimes the women who don’t want to become pregnant who easily do.

That means, if you’re dead set against pregnancy, and you stop the pill, you need to begin another form of contraception immediately. I actually recommend that my patients begin using an alternate contraceptive before getting off the pill so they get into the habit of using it.

Otherwise, you may have to get into the habit of changing diapers.

– Yvonne Thornton, MD, MPH