The contraceptive pill is now available over the counter without a prescription in the UK – but is this a good thing?

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  • Three female health experts weigh in.

    In a landmark announcement for women in the UK, the progestogen-only contraceptive pills Hana and Lovima will soon be available without prescription from pharmacies across the UK.

    This includes the likes of high street pharmacies, like Boots and Superdrug.

    This comes after the MHRA’s decision to reclassify the two progestogen-only pills from prescription only medicines to pharmacy medicines.

    But, question: with the knowledge we have of the many contraceptive pill side effects, is this a positive, making contraception more accessible, or a negative, further reinforcing the pill as the go-to birth control option, despite the adverse side effects some women experience?

    Good question. Marie Claire UK spoke to three doctors to discuss the repercussions.

    What are the main contraceptive pill side effects? 

    According to the NHS website, the progesterone only pill side effects include:

    • Your periods may stop or become lighter, irregular or more frequent.
    • You may experience acne
    • You may experience breast tenderness.

    With the combined pill, other side effects include temporary headaches, nausea and mood swings, but only the progesterone only pill is currently available over the counter.

    You can also experience a range of symptoms when coming off the pill, including mood swings, breast tenderness and cramping, but as with the above, will vary from pill-to-pill and person-to-person.

    It’s worth noting here: everyone’s experience of the pill will be different, and so chatting to your pharmacist or doctor is the best course of action for deciphering whether or not it’s for you. There are two different IUD types and lots of other birth control options that may be worth discussing, too.

    Contraceptive pill side effects: A woman receiving medicines bought on internet

    Why is the contraceptive pill being made available over the counter sans prescription? 

    According to Doctor Sam Wild, women’s health clinical lead at Bupa Health Clinics, it’s a move that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) have been recommending for years.

    “Until now, women have needed a prescription to get the contraceptive pill,” she explains. “All those who need the progestogen-only oral contraceptive pill (POP) can now go into their local pharmacy and access it without needing a prescription.”

    And on the side effects front? She maintains the progestogen-only pill is ‘safe, reliable, easy-to-use and an incredibly popular contraceptive method.’

    When will it be available? 

    Bina Mehta, a pharmacist at Boots, says that Hana – a progesterone-only pill – was made available in the UK on the 26th July. You can now purchase it from pharmacies like Boots without a prescription.

    Next up? Lovima. “Also a progesterone-only pill, this will be available soon too to give women a further option,” she continues.

    What will getting the pill over the counter entail? 

    The pill is available to buy both over the counter across the UK, as well as online. “If you’re ordering online, you will have to provide answers to a checklist, which will be reviewed by a pharmacist to make sure it’s suitable for you to take,” explains Wild.

    If you’re buying in-store, on the other hand, you’ll need to discuss with a pharmacist face-to-face. “They are qualified and in a position to advise whether or not it’s suitable for you,” explains Mehta.

    Also note here: you cannot ask anyone else to purchase the medicine for you – you must go to the pharmacy or fill the online form out yourself.

    Contraceptive pill side effects: Pharmacist handing medication to woman

    So, is the pill being made available over the counter a good thing?

    There are a whole heap of different types of contraception – so why is only the contraceptive pill being made readily available over the counter?

    A host of reasons. It’s the cheapest to make, and it’s actually doable – you can’t hand someone a coil over a counter, as it has to be fitted by a medical professional.

    All three experts maintain that it’s a positive move, with Wild sharing: “It’s a huge milestone for access to contraception for all women across the UK. Even before the pandemic, some women struggled to access contraception. This is a hugely convenient way to access contraception.”

    “It will give women greater control for their reproductive health and will support them to avoid any unplanned pregnancies,” she continues. 

    Mehta agrees, calling it ‘a landmark moment in the history of women’s health in the UK’ and explaining that the move makes a very reliable form of contraception more accessible.

    “The reclassification of these pills gives women quick and easy access to effective contraception,” she explains.

    GP doctor Sameer Sanghvi at LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor agrees, calling it ‘absolutely brilliant news’. He says: “Making birth control even more accessible to women gives them back control of their bodies.”

    Bottom line: introducing the over-the-counter option definitely gives women more freedom, enabling them to access doctor-approved birth control in a quick and convenient way. But more needs to be done to educate young women on the many different types of birth control available, from the coil, to the implant, to non-hormonal contraception options, like the Ballerine IUB set to come the the UK later this year.

    While it’s totally different for everyone, some may find that avoiding hormone-based contraception works better for them – for example, opting for a copper IUD or condoms instead.

    What do you reckon – a great move, or a stepping stone?

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