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Questions and Answers About Progestin-Only Pills
1. Can a woman who is breastfeeding safely use POPs?
In 2016 WHO considered this question and updated its guidance to allow a woman to use progestin-only pills after childbirth regardless of how recently she gave birth. She does not need to wait until 6 weeks postpartum. POPs are safe for both the mother and the baby and do not affect milk production.
2. What should a woman do when she stops breastfeeding her baby? Can she continue taking POPs?
A woman who is satisfied with using POPs can continue using them when she has stopped breastfeeding. She is less protected from pregnancy than when breastfeeding, however. She can switch to another method if she wishes.
3. Can a woman take POPs at any age?
Yes. There is no minimum or maximum age for POP use.
POPs can be an appropriate method for adolescents. Adolescents who are breastfeeding have the same need for an effective way to space births as older women. They may need extra support and encouragement to use POPs consistently and effectively.
4. Do POPs cause birth defects? Will the fetus be harmed if a woman accidentally takes POPs while she is pregnant?
No. Good evidence shows that POPs will not cause birth defects and will not otherwise harm the fetus if a woman becomes pregnant while taking POPs or accidentally takes POPs when she is already pregnant.
5. How long does it take to become pregnant after stopping POPs?
Women who stop using POPs can become pregnant as quickly as women who stop nonhormonal methods. POPs do not delay the return of a woman’s fertility after she stops taking them. The bleeding pattern a woman had before she used POPs generally returns after she stops taking them. Some women may have to wait a few months before their usual bleeding pattern returns.
6. If a woman does not have monthly bleeding while taking POPs, does this mean that she is pregnant?
Probably not, especially if she is breastfeeding. If she has been taking her pills every day, she is probably not pregnant and can keep taking her pills. If she is still worried after being reassured, she can be offered a pregnancy test, if available, or referred for one. If not having monthly bleeding bothers her, switching to another method may help—but not to another progestin-only method. These methods sometimes stop monthly bleeding.
7. Must the POP be taken every day?
Yes. All of the pills in the POP package contain the hormone that prevents pregnancy. If a woman does not take a pill every day—especially a woman who is not breastfeeding—she could become pregnant. (In contrast, the last 7 pills in a 28-pill pack of combined oral contraceptives are not active. They contain no hormones.)
8. Is it important for a woman to take her POPs at the same time each day?
Yes, for 2 reasons. POPs contain very little hormone, and taking a pill more than 3 hours late (more than 12 hours late with POPs containing desogestrel 75 mg) could reduce their effectiveness for women who are not breastfeeding. (Breastfeeding women have the additional protection from pregnancy that breastfeeding provides, so taking pills late is not as risky.) Also, taking a pill at the same time each day can help women remember to take their pills more consistently. Linking pill taking with a daily activity also helps women remember to take their pills.
9. Do POPs cause cancer?
No. Few large studies exist on POPs and cancer, but smaller studies of POPs are reassuring. Larger studies of implants have not shown any increased risk of cancer. Implants contain hormones similar to those used in POPs, and, during the first few years of implant use, at about twice the dosage.
10. Can POPs be used as emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) after unprotected sex?
Yes. As soon as possible, but no more than 5 days after unprotected sex, a woman can take POPs as ECPs (see Pill Formulations and Dosing for Emergency Contraception, in Chapter 3). Depending on the type of POP, she will have to take 40 to 50 pills. This is many pills, but it is safe because there is very little hormone in each pill.
11. Do POPs change women’s mood or sex drive?
Generally, no. Some women using POPs report these complaints. The great majority of POP users do not report any such changes, however, and some report that both mood and sex drive improve. It is difficult to tell whether such changes are due to the POPs or to other reasons. Providers can help a client with these problems (see "Mood changes or changes in sex drive"). There is no evidence that POPs affect women’s sexual behavior.
12. What should be done if a POP user has an ovarian cyst?
The great majority of cysts are not true cysts but actually fluid-filled structures in the ovary (follicles) that continue to grow beyond the usual size in a normal menstrual cycle. They may cause some mild abdominal pain, but they require treatment only if they grow abnormally large, twist, or burst. These follicles usually go away without treatment (see "Severe pain in lower abdomen").
13. Do POPs increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy?
No. On the contrary, POPs reduce the risk of ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies are rare among POP users. The rate of ectopic pregnancy among women using POPs is 48 per 10,000 women per year. The rate of ectopic pregnancy among women in the United States using no contraceptive method is 65 per 10,000 women per year.
On the uncommon occasions that POPs fail and pregnancy occurs, 5 to 10 of every 100 of these pregnancies are ectopic. Thus, the great majority of pregnancies after POPs fail are not ectopic. Still, ectopic pregnancy can be life-threatening, so a provider should be aware that ectopic pregnancy is possible if POPs fail.