Is the Pill Right for Me? – Here’s How to Choose an Oral Contraceptive

Katie Mui
Katie Mui is on the Research Team at GoodRx.
Posted on

Last month, the Trump administration rolled back part of the Obamacare contraception mandate, making it no longer mandatory for employers to cover the full cost of birth control on grounds of religious freedom. 55 million women who received free birth control since 2012 are now at risk of losing it. Employers are now free to remove birth control coverage from their employee insurance offerings, and hundreds of thousands of women might be at risk of losing free birth control.

Now is a good time for women to understand their options, in order to find affordable out-of-pocket protection, as well as a method that won’t wreak havoc on their bodies either. Here is some useful information about oral contraceptives – also known as “the pill” – which are the most popular forms of birth control. (If you already know the pill isn’t right for you, see this birth control tool which includes information about IUDs and other methods).

Top 5 prescribed brands (and their generics)

About 90% of the birth control pills used in the U.S. are generic versions of brand-name drugs. The brands are usually still available, but they’re generally much more expensive than the generic alternative. Here are the 5 most commonly prescribed oral contraceptives in the United States, in both brand and generic form:

  1. Ortho Tri-Cyclen ($50.15); generics tri-sprintec ($9) and tri-previfem ($8.92)
    combination triphasic pill
  2. Alesse (discontinued); generics orsythia ($14.92) and aviane ($14.91)
    combination monophasic pill
  3. Loestrin FE 1/20 ($118.05); generic junel FE 1/20 ($15.17)
    combination monophasic pill with iron
  4. Nor-Qd ($67.25); generics camila ($8.91) and norethindrone ($9)
    progestin-only / mini pill
  5. Desogen ($52.04); usually dispensed as generic apri ($15.64)
    combination monophasic pills

Prices shown are average GoodRx discounted prices as of Nov 1, 2017. Local results may vary.

How do doctors decide what to prescribe?

The conversation usually starts with a doctor asking what their patient would feel most comfortable using. If they aren’t sure or don’t have a preference, the doctor typically starts with Ortho Tri-Cyclen for adult non-smokers under 35, Loestrin Fe 1/20 for teenagers and young adults, and camila for women who smoke, are breastfeeding, or are over 35.

How do I know if I should switch?

Most oral contraceptives will effectively prevent pregnancy when used properly (the pill has a failure rate of 9% with typical use), but they can also cause a lot of unpleasant side effects. After all, taking the pill means adding hormones to your body – and everybody reacts differently to hormones.  So know that what and how you’re feeling may not always match the guidelines, and know too that there are usually other good options. The most common reasons women switch are menstrual cycle changes (flow becoming too heavy or irregular), weight gain, acne, headaches, and mood changes. It can take your body up to 3 months to get used to the new hormones, so don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about other options if these side effects don’t get better after a while.

What kind of hormones are we talking about?

It only requires one hormone, progestin, to prevent pregnancy. On its own, progestin stops ovulation to prevent fertilization, thins the uterine lining to prevent implantation, and thickens the cervix to prevent sperm from entering the uterus. Estrogen helps boost the contraceptive effects of the progestin, and also helps to prevent ovulation. Its main purpose, though, is to help provide better cycle regulation. The more estrogen there is, the lower the chance of breakthrough bleeding or spotting.

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Why are there so many different brands?

In a nutshell, each brand contains a different combination of progestin and estrogen meant to help women minimise side effects while effectively preventing pregnancy. Progestin, unlike estrogen, does not increase the risk of stroke and is safe to use while breastfeeding. But you have to take it at the same time every day or else you risk getting pregnant and experience breakthrough bleeding. For this reason, some women opt for brands that also have estrogen — so there is more flexibility to remembering to take the pill. Estrogen is also better for cycle regulation but comes with a lot of side effects attributed to birth control, like lowered sex drive, acne, bloating, weight gain, and mood swings.

Your doctor will work with you to figure out what levels of progestin and estrogen are best for you, but it’s useful to know your options ahead of time. Below, we go into more detail about all the available types of oral contraceptives and how they may affect you.

Combination pill

A “combo” pill contains both progestin and estrogen. Most birth control pills fall into this category, but there are several sub-categories as listed below:

Progestin-only pill

This is the other major type of birth control pill, commonly referred to as the “minipill”. It provides a steady dose of progestin throughout the month. It doesn’t contain estrogen, there are no inactive pills, and you don’t take a break between packs.

The name game

Brand name pills are usually pretty simple to pronounce and remember. Some are even pretty clever. Loestrin, for example, prides itself on providing the lowest amount of estrogen compared to other brands. Ortho Tri-Cyclen is a triphasic pill. With Seasonale and Seasonique, women only get 4 periods a year — so once every season.

Unlike other drugs, the names of generic oral contraceptives aren’t just their chemical names. Manufacturers usually give them special names to make them easier for people to pronounce and remember. While some still try to cleverly play on the type of pill it is (tri-previfem and tri-sprintec are generics of Ortho Tri-Cyclen), most seem random, albeit very feminine (Portia, Zarah, Camila). In general though, birth control pill names can be a bit confusing but we have managed to pick up on a few patterns.

When a number is included in the name, it can mean one of two things. Usually, the number refers to the strength of the hormones in the pack. For example, junel FE 1/20 contains 1 mg progestin and 20 mcg estrogen and Ovcon 35 contains 0.4 mg progestin and 35 mcg estrogen. But sometimes, the number refers to the layout of the pack, so Loestrin 24 FE has 24 active tablets in it. Necon 7/7/7 increases the strength of hormones every 7 days in a pack.

Some manufacturers include a small amount of iron in the inactive pills of the pack, marked by the “FE” at the end of the name (iron is FE on the periodic table). Sometimes women will lose iron during their menstrual period so the extra iron can actually help prevent temporary anemia.

The last thing included in some of the names is “low” or “lo”. Some drugmakers produce a second version of their birth control pill with a lower strength of estrogen than the original. This is a better choice for women who experience issues tied to hormonal imbalances during their cycle (like acne, PMS, and moodiness). On the flip side, LO versions of the pill may not be able to help women who take birth control for acne treatment.

Prices shown are average GoodRx discounted prices as of Nov 1, 2017. Local results may vary. Thanks to pharmacist Christina Aungst for help researching this post.

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