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Birth Control Medications (Contraceptives)

Birth Control Medications Introduction

Birth control (contraceptive) medications contain hormones (estrogen and progesterone, or progesterone alone). The medications are available in various forms, such as pills, injections (into a muscle), topical (skin) patches, and slow-release systems (vaginal rings, skin implants, and contraceptive-infused intrauterine devices [Mirena]).

Choosing which estrogen and progesterone dose, type, and administration method is highly patient specific, meaning that the choice greatly depends on factors unique to an individual. General goals are to choose a product that provides good menstrual cycle control with the fewest adverse (side) effects and to use the lowest hormone dose possible. After beginning birth control medications, it may be necessary to adjust the dose or to choose a different product.

The estrogens and progesterones contained in birth control medications available in the United States include the following:

  • Estrogens
    • Ethinyl estradiol
    • Mestranol
  • Progesterones
    • Norethynodrel
    • Norethindrone
    • Norethindrone acetate
    • Norgestimate
    • Desogestrel
    • Ethynodiol diacetate
    • Norgestrel
    • Levonorgestrel
    • Drospirenone
  • How birth control medications work: Hormonal birth control medications prevent pregnancy through the following ways:
    • By blocking ovulation (release of an egg from the ovaries), thus preventing pregnancy
    • By altering mucus in the cervix, which makes it hard for sperm to travel further
    • By changing the endometrium (lining of the uterus) so that it cannot support a fertilized egg
    • By altering the fallopian tubes (the tubes through which eggs move from the ovaries to the uterus) so that they cannot effectively move eggs toward the uterus
  • Who should not use these medications: Women with the following conditions should not use estrogen-containing birth control medications:
    • Allergy to any component of the product
    • History of blood clot disorders
    • History of stroke or heart attack
    • Heart valve disease with complications
    • Severe hypertension
    • Diabetes that causes blood vessel problems
    • Poorly controlled diabetes
    • Severe headaches (for example, migraines)
    • Recent major surgery with prolonged bed rest
    • Breast cancer
    • Liver cancer (or liver disease)
    • Uterine cancer or other known or suspected estrogen-dependent cancers
    • Unexplained abnormal bleeding from the uterus
    • Jaundice during pregnancy or jaundice with prior hormonal contraceptive use
    • Known or possible pregnancy
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/18/2014
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