Those of us who are childless and happy about it don’t have to look far to find that the world is ripe with some pretty convincing forms of visual birth control. For me, it’s that commercial about ADHD; for my friend, it’s a red-eye flight with an infant chorus on board. And while I know that someday I’ll probably think my child’s smile is worth his or her snot, right now, I’d like to keep my life free from day camp, carpools, and ear infections.
So, like many women my age, I rely on another, less theoretical, form of birth control: a pink pack of pills that has seen me through seven years of relationships, single life, and dry spells. With such a loyal partner, you’d think I’d know it now like the back of my hand. But the truth of the matter is, I don’t. And unfortunately, I’m not alone.
To set us all straight, I enlisted the help of two Ob/Gyn residents with an interest in family planning: Dr. Megan Evans of Tufts and Dr. Rachna Vanjani of Boston University. As they know well, myths about birth control run rampant. So how much do you know about that pill you’ve been popping? It’s time to separate the fact from the fiction.
Myth #1: Birth control makes you fat
There’s no good evidence that oral contraceptives lead to weight gain. Although doctors may warn you of this effect and your pill’s packaging probably lists it, this is because women have reported it, not because studies have proven it. In fact, a recent review of studies argues that the sheer power of suggestion may lead to side effects like weight gain.
To channel your old statistics teacher: correlation does not equal causation. Just because you gained a few pounds doesn’t mean it’s the birth control’s fault. The burger you ate and the workouts you’ve missed? Those are the more likely culprits.
That being said, everybody’s different. The way you react to any therapeutic is probably not the same as the way your best friend does. Fortunately, changing the hormone dosages (by switching to another brand)—or even adjusting when in the day you take the pill—can usually take care of a number of less-than-desirable reactions.
Myth #2: If I have sex on Saturday, but not at all the week before or the week after, I can slack on my weekday pill-taking regimen
When you take birth control as directed, (that is, at the same time every day) you are essentially telling your ovaries to hold onto their eggs. That way, if a sperm finds its way in, it won’t have anything to fertilize. But, sperm are patient: they can camp out in the reproductive tract for up to five days. So, if you miss or delay a pill on the days before or after sex, you run the risk of letting an egg loose for any lingering sperm to fertilize.
Set your alarm and take your pill on time, all the time. If you mess up? Emergency contraception like Plan B is safer than just crossing your fingers.
Myth #3: Two birth control pills equal one “morning after” pill
While this statement isn’t always a myth, it’s not always a fact either. Depending on the type of birth control you take, a mock Plan B can mean taking anywhere from two to six of your everyday pills. And, because all of the pills in your pack are not created equal (for some brands, the hormone dosages change each week), which ones you pop matter. So if you need emergency contraception, don’t pretend you’re a pharmacist and down a few extra pills. If you want to do it yourself, consult with your doctor first to make sure you’re doing it right.
Myth #4: The longer you take birth control, the harder it will be to get pregnant when you want to
Whether you’ve been taking the pill for one year or 10, most women’s reproductive gears start cranking weeks or months—not years—after they discontinue use. Studies show that between 79 and 96% of women become pregnant within one year of stopping the pill.
Of course, the longer you take birth control, the older you get. Age, not the pill, is what really decreases your fertility.
Myth #5: Oral contraceptives are the most effective form of birth control
Birth control pills are extremely effective—when used perfectly. But let’s face it: most of us aren’t perfect. In fact, with “typical” use, about 8% of women on the pill get pregnant each year.
Intra-uterine devices, or IUDs, on the other hand, are over 99% effective—with no caveats. After being inserted into your uterus by your Ob/Gyn, the (not-much-bigger-than-a-penny) T-shaped copper or plastic device is content doing its job for up to 10 years, or for as long as you want to stave off pregnancy. Like pills, they are relatively painless, reversible, and don’t decrease your fertility or increase your risk of infection. But unlike pills, you don’t have to think about them every day for them to work. If you’re still not convinced, consider this: IUDs are the most popular form of birth control among American Ob/Gyns.
In the case of birth control, the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t necessarily hold true. From the pill to the patch to a variety of non-hormonal methods, there are plenty of options out there for keeping pregnancy scares at bay. So whatever method you use (or don’t), make sure you’re using it appropriately, you’re making an active choice, and you know what’s fact—and what’s fiction.