6 things you need to know about periods on the pill
The pill stops you ovulating
The most common way the pill works is by stopping your ovaries from releasing an egg (ovulation). You'll probably remember from biology that periods happen each month if an egg is released but not fertilised, so when the pill stops your ovaries from releasing an egg each month, it technically means you don't get periods at all.
There's usually still a bleed though (sorry!)
Even though you don't get a real period, you'll still experience monthly bleeding that’s similar to having your period. It's officially called a "withdrawal bleed" but, whatever you want to call it, your fake period is usually lighter, more regular, and less painful than a normal period.
When you first go on the pill, you might also get a bit of spotting (bleeding between periods) but this should settle down. If it doesn't, speak to your nurse or GP.
The type of pill will affect if/when you bleed
There are two main types of contraceptive pill: the combined pill, which contains a mixture of the hormones oestrogen and progestogen, and the progestogen-only pill (POP, or mini pill), which – as the name suggests – only contains progestogen.
On the combined pill, you'll take a hormone pill every day for three weeks, and then have a seven-day break. Your bleed happens at some point during that break, when your body is withdrawing from the hormones.
If you're taking the most common type of combined pill (brands like Microgynon, Brevinor and Cilest), you won't take any pill at all during your hormone-free week – so remember to start your next pack on time at the end of it. Some types of pill are known as every day (ED) pills. They work in the same way, but you take dummy pills (placebos) during your hormone-free week.
On the POP, you take a pill every day and don't have a break between packs. Some (but not all) types of POP prevent ovulation, but the effect on your period can vary a bit more than with the combined pill.
The pill can also help with PMS and those pesky pre-period breakouts
Again, it depends on the type and how your body reacts to it, but the pill can help to reduce PMS symptoms like mood swings and acne breakouts. Unfortunately, it can also cause those things as its own side effect, so there's a bit of trial and error involved in finding the pill that works best for you.
"We would normally start with a simple combined pill and see how you get on for at least three months," explains Sue Burchill, Head of Nursing at sexual health charity Brook. "Because you're introducing hormones, your body is more likely to react at first, so your skin or PMS may get slightly worse, but these side effects may well improve." If the side effects don't settle down after three months, do go back to your nurse or GP about trying another option – your body might react horribly to one brand but get on absolutely fine with another.
You can use the pill to control your periods
The best thing about your hormone-free week is always knowing when your period's going to show up. No more being caught out without a tampon or pad! For me, it usually starts on the fourth day of my pill break, and finishes on the day I start my next pack – but it might be totally different for you.
You can also use the combined pill to avoid bleeding at all, by taking two or more packs back-to-back, without the usual break in between. Don't want your period putting a downer on your winter holiday, or sabotaging that gymnastics competition? Just start taking your next pack as soon as you've finished the previous one, and you basically get a free pass on that month. "It's fine not to have a period every month," Sue says, although you might still get a bit of spotting, or breakthrough bleeding, when running the packs together.
This method can also be handy if you're forgetful about taking the pill every day. "If you miss pills, your body's not going to know what's going on, so it can be easier to remember if you run packs back-to-back," Sue explains. "It's absolutely safe to do this and there are different regimes you can follow to manage it. Your doctor or nurse will explain which one to use."
If in doubt, ask an expert
Hormones are complicated, and everyone reacts differently, so make sure you talk through the options and side effects with a nurse or GP, either at your local surgery or sexual health clinic. "Do not just use your friend's pills!" says Sue. "Your doctor or nurse will ask questions to make sure you're safe, but remember that it's a confidential service where you can get information and advice," she adds. If you're concerned about anything - from abnormal bleeding to long-term side effects - get it checked out.
For more information on the pill, visit Brook.org.uk or go to your local GP surgery or sexual health clinic.