Solutions for your contraceptive quandaries
Q. Can I get pregnant during my period?
A Yes. Your period is one sign that you're not pregnant, but that doesn't mean you can't become pregnant during menstruation. Ovulation can occur during or immediately after your period. So why don't women on oral contraceptives get pregnant during their "week off"? When used properly, the Pill prevents you from ovulating. So even if you have unprotected sex during the week when you're taking the placebo, there's no egg to be fertilized by the sperm. Further, Linda Darlene Bradley, M.D., an OB-GYN at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, notes that certain conditions (infections, fibroids and lesions on the cervix) can mimic a period, thus confusing a woman about where she is in her cycle.
Q. Can I get pregnant if I'm breast-feeding?
A Maybe. While you're nursing, the body releases a chemical called prolactin, which prevents ovulation. But breast-feeding as contraception isn't foolproof: It only works within six months of having your baby, if you haven't had a period since the baby and if you're breast-feeding exclusively. "If you're breast-feeding or pumping milk every two to three hours, your risk of getting pregnant is very small," explains Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., codirector of the New York Center for Women's Sexual Health at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
Q. Is it safe to stop my period?
A In a recent nationwide poll of more than 300 female OB-GYNs, 99 percent said they thought menstrual suppression (the technical term for stopping your period by continuously taking oral contraceptives with no time off) was safe for their patients. In fact, more than half had tried it themselves. "It's perfectly healthy not to have a period while on the Pill," states Elizabeth Onyemelukwe Garner, M.D., an instructor in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She notes that this is very different from having an irregular cycle or an underlying health problem that can cause irregular or missed periods. "In today's world where women are increasingly busy and budgets are tight, not having periods can be a convenience—less money spent on pads and tampons, less time off from work for PMS and cramps," says Garner, who adds that, thus far, the Pill is the only method of suppression scientists have studied.
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Q. Why does taking birth control pills make my breasts bigger?
A "The hormone estrogen, found in the Pill, stimulates breast tissue," Garner explains. She adds that similar changes happen in women who are pregnant or those who are in certain phases of their menstrual cycle. Just so you know: Some women's busts decrease after they go off oral contraceptives, while others retain their enhanced cup size.
Q. Will being on birth control for more than five years diminish my ability to conceive later on?
A "Not at all. You can be on birth control for 20 years, and it won't decrease your fertility," says Hutcherson.
WHEN PLAN A FAILS: EMERGENCY-CONTRACEPTION UPDATE
Even the savviest sister can find herself in a jam, thinking she might accidentally be pregnant. Maybe you missed a pill pulling a late night at work. Or the condom broke. Or worse, you were in a situation where you were forced to have unprotected intercourse. That's where emergency contraception pills (ECP) can help. The method, also known as the morning-after pill or Plan B, works this way: Within 72 hours of intercourse, you take a high dose of the progestin-only birth control pill. This prevents pregnancy by stopping ovulation, inhibiting sperm or hindering the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.
At press time, the U.S. government is considering making ECP available over the counter. At this point, only five states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington) allow the sale of the morning-after pill without a prescription. (Thanks to the Internet, you can also order ECP—for a fee—if you meet prescription requirements from sites like getthepill.com.)
As the debate over the morning-after pill continues, if you find yourself in an "emergency" situation, see a health-care provider or visit a Planned Parenthood center right away. Linda Darlene Bradley, M.D., an OB-GYN and director at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, says it's better to see a professional than to try to mix your own emergency-contraception cocktail.