The combined pill

The combined pill is usually just called the pill. It contains two hormones – estrogen and progestogen. These are similar to the natural hormones women produce in their ovaries.

There are a number of different combined pills. If you are taking a combined pill called Qlaira, some of the information on this page may not apply to you. Seek advice.

The advice below includes the latest information available for women who have missed a pill.

Download Your Guide to the Combined Pill (PDF)

How effective any contraceptive is depends on how old you are, how often you have sex and whether you follow the instructions.

If 100 sexually active women don’t use any contraception, 80 to 90 will become pregnant in a year.

If the pill is taken according to instructions it is over 99 per cent effective. This means that less than one woman in 100 will get pregnant in a year.

If the pill is not taken according to instructions, more women will become pregnant.

The main way the pill works is to stop the ovaries from releasing an egg each month (ovulation). It also:

  • thickens the mucus from your cervix. This makes it difficult for sperm to move through it and reach an egg
  • makes the lining of your uterus (womb) thinner so it is less likely to accept a fertilised egg.

You can go to a contraception or sexual health clinic, or general practice. If you prefer not to go to your own general practice, or if they don’t provide contraceptive services, they can give you information about another practice or clinic.

All treatment is free and confidential.

You don’t need to have a vaginal or breast examination or cervical screening test when you are first prescribed the combined pill.

Not everyone can use the combined pill so your doctor or nurse will need to ask you about your own and your family’s medical history. Do mention any illness or operations you have had. Some of the conditions which may mean you should not use the combined pill are:

  • you think you might already be pregnant
  • you smoke and are 35 years old or over
  • you are 35 years old or over and stopped smoking less than a year ago
  • you are very overweight
  • you take certain medicines
  • you are breastfeeding (see below, I've just had a baby. Can I use the pill?).

You have now or had in the past:

  • thrombosis (blood clots) in any vein or artery or a member of your immediate family had thrombosis before they were 45 years old
  • heart disease or a stroke
  • systemic lupus erythematosus
  • a heart abnormality or circulatory disease, including hypertension (raised blood pressure)
  • migraines with aura
  • breast cancer or breast cancer within the last five years or you have the gene that is associated with breast cancer
  • active disease of the liver or gall bladder
  • diabetes with complications
  • you are immobile for a long period of time or use a wheelchair
  • you are at high altitude (more than 4500m) for more than a week.

If you are healthy, don’t smoke and there are no medical reasons for you not to take the pill, you can use it until you are 50 years old. You will then need to change to another method of contraception.

Some of the advantages of the pill are, it:

  • usually makes your bleeds regular, lighter and less painful
  • may help with premenstrual symptoms
  • reduces the risk of cancer of the ovary, uterus and colon
  • improves acne in some women
  • may reduce menopausal symptoms
  • may reduce the risk of fibroids, ovarian cysts and non-cancerous breast disease.

There are some serious side-effects (see below, Are there any risks?):

  • you may get temporary side-effects at first including headaches, nausea, breast tenderness and mood changes. If these do not stop within a few months, changing the type of pill may help
  • the pill may increase your blood pressure
  • the pill does not protect you against sexually transmitted infections, so you may need to use condoms as well
  • breakthrough bleeding (unexpected vaginal bleeding on pill taking days) and spotting is common in the first few months of pill use (see below, I’m bleeding on days when I’m taking the pill, what should I do?).

Research has not shown that the pill causes weight gain. Some women may find that their weight changes throughout their cycle due to fluid retention.

The pill can have some serious side-effects, but these are not common. For most women the benefits of the pill outweigh the possible risks. All risks and benefits should be discussed with your doctor or nurse.

  • A very small number of women may develop venous thrombosis, arterial thrombosis, heart attack or stroke. If you have ever had thrombosis, you should not use the pill. Some types of pill appear to be associated with a slightly higher risk of venous thrombosis.
  • The risk of venous thrombosis is greatest during the first year that you take the pill and if any of the following apply to you – you smoke, you are very overweight, are immobile for a long period of time or use a wheelchair, or a member of your immediate family had venous thrombosis before they were 45 years old.
  • The risk of arterial thrombosis is greatest if any of the following apply to you – you smoke, are diabetic, have hypertension, are very overweight, have migraines with aura, or a member of your immediate family had a heart attack or stroke before they were 45 years old.
  • Research suggests that users of the pill appear to have a small increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to non-users of hormonal contraception, which reduces with time after stopping the pill.
  • Research suggests that there is a small increase in the risk of developing cervical cancer with longer use of estrogen and progestogen hormonal contraception.

See a doctor straightaway if you have any of the following:

  • pain in the chest, including any sharp pain which is worse when you breathe in
  • breathlessness
  • you cough up blood
  • painful swelling in your leg(s)
  • weakness, numbness, or bad 'pins and needles' in an arm or leg
  • severe stomach pains
  • a bad fainting attack or you collapse
  • unusual headaches or migraines that are worse than usual
  • sudden problems with your speech or eyesight
  • jaundice (yellowing skin or yellowing eyes).

If you go into hospital for an operation or have an accident which affects the movement of your legs, tell the doctor you are taking the combined pill. You may need to stop taking the pill or need other treatment to reduce the risk of developing thrombosis.

No, there are three main types of pills and many different brands. They are taken differently.

Monophasic 21 day pills – This is the most common type of pill. Each pill has the same amount of hormone in it. You take one a day for 21 days then no pills for the next seven days. Zoely is a monophasic pill that is taken every day for 28 days with no break between packs. There are 24 active pills and four inactive pills which don’t contain any hormones (placebos).

Phasic 21 day pills – These pills contain different amounts of hormone so you must take them in the right order. There are two or three sections of different coloured pills in the pack. You take one pill a day for 21 days then no pills for the next seven days. Qlaira is a phasic pill that is taken every day for 28 days with no break between packs. There are 26 active pills that contain different amounts of hormones and two pills which don’t contain any hormones (placebos).

EveryDay (ED) pills – There are 21 active pills and seven inactive pills which don’t contain any hormones (placebos). These look different to the active pills. You take one pill a day for 28 days with no break between packs. There are different types of EveryDay pills. Whichever type you take, you must take EveryDay pills in the right order.

These instructions apply to most types of combined pill. You can start the pill anytime in your menstrual cycle if you are sure you are not pregnant.

If you start the pill on the first day of your period you will be protected from pregnancy immediately.

You can also start the pill up to, and including, the fifth day of your period and you will be protected from pregnancy immediately.

However, if you have a short menstrual cycle with your period coming every 23 days or less, starting the pill as late as the fifth day may not provide you with immediate contraceptive protection because you may ovulate early in your menstrual cycle. Talk to your doctor or nurse about this and whether you need to use additional contraception.

If you start the pill at any other time in your menstrual cycle you will need to use additional contraception, such as condoms, for the first seven days of pill-taking or nine days for Qlaira.

You can start taking the pill 21 days after you gave birth. Starting on day 21 you will be protected against pregnancy straight away. If you start later than day 21, use additional contraception for seven days.

If you are breastfeeding a baby under six months old, taking the combined pill may reduce your flow of milk. It is usually recommended that you use a different method of contraception.

You can start taking the combined pill immediately after a miscarriage or abortion. You will be protected from pregnancy immediately.

21 day pills – Take your first pill from the bubble in the pack marked with the correct day of the week or the first pill of the first colour (phasic pills).Try to take it at the same time each day and take a pill every day until the pack is finished (21 days).

You then stop taking pills for seven days. During this week you get a bleed. You don't have periods when you take the pill – you have a withdrawal bleed (which doesn't always happen). It is caused by you not taking hormones in the pill-free week.

Start your next pack on the eighth day (the same day of the week as you took your first pill). Do this whether or not you are still bleeding.

EveryDay pills – Take the first pill from the section of the pack marked 'start' or the pill marked 'one' for Qlaira. This will be an active pill. Take a pill every day until the pack is finished (28 days). You must take the pills in the correct order and try to take them at the same time each day. Taking the pills in the wrong order could mean that you are not protected against pregnancy.

During the days that you take the placebo pills you will get a withdrawal bleed. When you finish a pack you should start another pack the next day whether or not you are still bleeding.

EveryDay pills come with sticky strips of paper with the days of the week marked on them. These help you keep track of your pill taking. Instructions in the pack will tell you how to use them.

The pill is designed to be taken every day. It is very important that you take the pill each day as instructed. When taking your first pill, choose a convenient time. This can be any time of day. Taking a pill at the same time each day will help you to remember to take it regularly. You have 'missed a pill' if you take it more than 24 hours later than your chosen time. If you do miss any pill(s) the important thing is not to stop taking it. See below, How many pills have you missed?

Yes. You are protected if:

  • you have taken all the pills correctly and
  • you start the next pack on time and
  • nothing else has happened that might make the pill less effective.

Missing pills or starting the pack late may make the pill less effective. The chance of pregnancy after missing pills depends on:

  • when pills are missed and
  • how many pills are missed.

Missing one pill anywhere in your pack or starting the new pack one day late is not a problem. You will still have contraceptive cover.

Missing two or more pills or starting the pack two or more days late may affect your contraceptive cover. To see what you shoud do, see below, How many pills have you missed?.

It is more risky to start a pack late and miss more than one pill. This is because during the seven day break or placebo week your ovaries are not getting any effects from the pill. If you make the break or placebo week longer you may ovulate.

If you are not sure what to do, continue to take your pill, use additional contraception, such as condoms, and seek advice.

If you are taking the combined pill Qlaira and have missed a pill, the information here may not apply to you. Seek advice.

One pill missed

If you have missed one pill, or if you have started the new pack one day late:

  • Take the last pill you missed now.
  • Continue taking the rest of the pack as usual.
  • Emergency contraception is not usually required but may need to be considered if pills have been missed earlier in the pack or in the last week of the previous pack.

Two or more pills missed

If you have missed two or more pills or if you have started the new pack two or more days late:

  • Take the last pill you missed now.
  • Continue taking the rest of the pack as usual.
  • Leave any earlier missed pills.
  • Use an additional method of contraception for the next seven days.
  • If you have had unprotected sex in the previous seven days, you may need emergency contraception. Seek advice.

If seven or more pills are left in the pack after the missed pill:

  • finish the pack
  • have the usual seven day break or take the placebo tablets.

If fewer than seven pills are left in the pack after the missed pill:

  • finish the pack and begin a new one the next day (this means missing out the break or not taking the placebo tablets).

How many pills have you missed? easy to follow diagram

Download How many pills have you missed? easy to follow diagram (PDF)

If you vomit within two hours of taking a pill, it will not have been absorbed by your body. Take another pill as soon as you feel well enough. As long as you are not sick again your contraception will not be affected. Take your next pill at the normal time. If you continue to be sick, seek advice.

If you have very severe diarrhoea that continues for more than 24 hours, this may make the pill less effective. Keep taking your pill at the normal time, but treat each day that you have severe diarrhoea as if you had missed a pill and follow the missed pill instructions. See above, How many pills have you missed?.

If you are given medicines by a doctor, nurse or hospital always say you are taking the combined pill.

Commonly used antibiotics do not affect the pill.

Medicines such as some of those used to treat epilepsy, HIV and TB, and the complementary medicine St John’s Wort, may make it less effective. These types of drugs are called enzyme-inducers. If you take these medicines, talk to your doctor or nurse about how to take the pill – you may need to use a different method of contraception.

It is easy to change from one pill to another. Talk to your doctor or nurse as you may need to miss out the break or placebo week or use additional contraception for a short time.

Bleeding is very common when you first start taking the pill and is not usually anything to worry about. It may take up to three months to settle down. It is very important to keep taking the pills to the end of the pack, even if the bleeding is as heavy as your withdrawal bleed.

Bleeding may also be caused by not taking the pill correctly or by a sexually transmitted infection. If it carries on or starts after you have used the pill for some time, seek advice.

If you took all your pills correctly and you didn’t vomit or take any other medicines which might have affected the pill, then it is very unlikely you are pregnant.

Start your next pack at the right time. If you are worried ask your doctor or nurse for advice, or do a pregnancy test. Taking the pill does not affect a pregnancy test. Always take a test or speak to a health professional if you miss more than one bleed. If you do become pregnant, there is no evidence to show that taking the combined pill harms the baby.

Yes. This is not harmful. If you are taking a monophasic pill (where all the pills are identical) you should start another pack straight away and miss out the pill-free break. With EveryDay pills, miss out the placebo tablets.

It is safe to take more than one pack of pills without taking the pill-free break or placebo tablets. If you are taking a phasic pill (such as Qlaira), or want to extend or continuously take your pill, ask your doctor or nurse for advice.

Sometimes you do still get some bleeding. This is nothing to worry about. If you have taken your pills correctly, you will still be protected against pregnancy.

Ideally, it is easier to stop taking the pill at the end of the pack. If you don’t want to wait until the end of the pack seek advice because you can risk becoming pregnant if you have had sex recently. If you do not want to become pregnant use another method of contraception as soon as you stop taking the last active pill.

When you stop using the pill your fertility will return to normal. Don’t worry if your periods don’t start immediately. For some women it can take a few months.

If you want to try for a baby it is advisable to wait for one natural period before trying to get pregnant. This means the pregnancy can be dated more accurately and you can start pre-pregnancy care such as taking folic acid and stopping smoking. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice. Don’t worry if you do get pregnant sooner, it will not harm the baby.

No, you don’t need to take a break because the hormones do not build up. There are no known benefits to your health or fertility from taking a break.

When you first start the pill you will usually be given three months’ supply to see how it suits you. After that you should go back to the doctor or nurse to get new supplies and to have your blood pressure checked. If there are no problems, you can be given up to a year’s supply of the pill.

If you are fasting because of a health or medical issue (such as surgery) you should consult your practice nurse or doctor.

If you are fasting for religious or cultural reasons follow the advice below.

Fasting during certain times of day

  • Take your pill at a time of day when you can eat. You might need to change your usual time.
  • The first pill you take at your new time might be more than 12 hours late. This is OK and will not affect your contraceptive cover.
  • Take the rest of your pack at your new time.

If you miss more than one pill in the pack you will need to use additional contraception. See above, How many pills have you missed?.

Fasting for 24 hours, NOT MORE than once a month

  • You can delay taking one pill for 24 hours anywhere in your pack.
  • You do not need to use any additional contraception.
  • You might get some irregular bleeding, but this isn’t harmful.
  • After the fasting period, take your pill as normal, including the one you delayed.
  • Take any remaining pills as usual until you finish the pack. 

If you miss more than one pill in the pack you will need to use additional contraception. See above, How many pills have you missed?.

Fasting for 24 hours, MORE than once a month

If you fast for 24 hours more than once in any month there is a risk that you will lose your protection from pregnancy. You will need to use an additional form of contraception.

If you regularly fast more than once a month a different method of contraception might be more suitable for you.

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This website can only give you general information about contraception. The information is based on evidence-guided research from the World Health Organization and The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. All methods of contraception come with a Patient Information Leaflet which provides detailed information about the method.

Remember – contact your doctor, practice nurse or a contraception clinic if you are worried or unsure about anything.

INFORMATION LAST UPDATED JANUARY 2014. NEXT UPDATE DUE 2015.