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Pill power

Still harbouring old myths about the birth control pill, have we started taking emergency contraceptives too lightly?

health and fitness Updated: Mar 05, 2009 16:30 IST
Sai Raje

The availability of emergency contraceptive pills over the counter has been empowering for women. It allows them to exercise greater control over their bodies and avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortions. The flipside to this, however, is that emergency contraception is being used indiscriminately. For emergency contraception to be truly empowering, we need to understand its potential side-effects as well and use it wisely.

Doctors say that many patients, especially young women, have taken to popping the emergency contraceptive pill without caution.

For instance, Sheetal Gupta, a young woman in her twenties, popped an emergency contraceptive pill after having unprotected sex. When she didn’t get her period in a few days, she took another. Soon after, she popped the third emergency contraceptive pill. The, stressed out about being pregnant, she took a urine pregnancy test, which was negative.

“When she finally came to me, her menstrual cycle was haywire,” says Dr Rishma Dhillon Pai, consultant gynaecologist, Jaslok and Lilavati Hospitals. “She would get her period twice or even thrice a month because taking the pill so often had caused a severe imbalance in her hormone levels.”

Another patient who came to Dr Pai with an erratic period cycle, admitted to using an emergency contraceptive pill as a regular method of contraception, because she thought birth control pills would make her fat.

“What women have not realised is that this is an emergency contraceptive pill, to be used only on the rare occasion that another regular contraception method has failed,” says Dr Anita Soni,consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr L H Hiranandani Hospital. “It is certainly not a substitute for regular birth control pills. If taken regularly they can have side-effects like irregular menstrual cycles, bleeding and spotting.”

Doctors say the emergency contraceptive pill must be used only in a real emergency. “These emergency contraceptive pills have high doses of certain hormones, which cause an imbalance in the hormonal milieu, and avoid a pregnancy from taking place,” says Dr Nandita Palshetkar, infertility specialist, Lilavati Hospital. “You should not be taking them more than once in a menstrual cycle.”

Many gynaecologists feel that the regular birth control pill is far safer. The failure rate of regular birth control pills is just one per cent.

“But mental blocks and archaic myths about the birth control pill’s side effects still persist, and people hesitate to use it,” says Dr Soni.

Birth control pills has been known to have side-effects like nausea, water retention/bloating and weight gain. “But the latest variety of birth control pills, known as the ultra low-dose birth control pills are very safe,” says Dr Pai. “The birth control pill coupled with condom usage is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases.”

Gynaecologists say that all sexually active women should consider taking birth control pills in consultation with their doctor, instead of taking a chance with emergency contraceptives that have a failure rate of 25 per cent.
An unwanted pregnancy arising from a failed emergency contraceptive comes with its own complications. “There are risks of incomplete abortions, heavy bleeding, infections and even injury to the uterus,” says Dr Pai.