The short answer is yes, you can get pregnant on the contraceptive pill. No contraceptive is utterly foolproof and the pill is no different. However – provided it is taken correctly – the pill is over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.
This means that fewer than one woman in 100 who use the pill as contraception will get pregnant in one year. With perfect use of the pill, that number rises to 1 woman in 1000. Of course, if you fail to take the pill correctly your chances of an unexpected pregnancy rise.
How you should take your pill depends on what type of pill you are taking. There are two types: the combined contraceptive pill and the progesterone-only pill, known as the ‘mini pill’. The mini pill is taken more regularly than the combined pill and also has less scope for error. If you are unsure what type of pill you are taking, you should consult your pill packet or search the brand name. For more information on different types of contraceptive pills, click here.
How to take the combined pill
The combined pill is generally taken daily for 21 days then stopped for seven days, during which time you will have your period. Once the seven-day break is over, the 21-day cycle restarts. You should always take combined pills in the correct order and at approximately the same time each day. However, combined pills allow a 24 hour window in which they can be taken – meaning if you can be up to a day late taking your pill and still be guarded against pregnancy. Only if you miss two or more pills might your protection against pregnancy be affected.
How to take the mini pill
The mini pill (otherwise known as the progesterone-only pill) is taken every day without a break. You must take mini pills in the order specified by the pack. Notably, the time window for missing mini pills is much narrower than for combined pills. Most mini pills should be taken within three hours of the same time each day. (Apart from mini pills brands Cerazette and Cerelle, which both allow a 12 hour window in which they should be taken.) Once outside this three or twelve hour window you will not be protected against pregnancy.
Remembering to take the pill
Taking your pill at the correct time is obviously very important in preventing an unwanted pregnancy. Here are some tips to help you remember your pill:
- Routine! You never forget to brush your teeth because the habit is so ingrained. Use this in your favour. Take the pill every day after your morning brush. Over time the pill should become equally ingrained into your daily routine.
- Use technology! Modern mobiles allow you to set daily reminders for yourself, complete with text so you don’t forget what the reminder is for! Make sure these reminders are set for a time you can act upon them – e.g. not the mid-afternoon meeting.
- Visual reminders. Leave a reminder note in an easy-to-spot place, somewhere you look every day without fail. The inside of your front door or the kettle/toaster are a couple of potential locations. For bonus effectiveness make the note brilliantly coloured so you definitely can’t miss it.
- Keep in sight. We all know the expression ‘out of sight, out of mind’, so try and ensure your pill packet is never out of sight. Rather than inside the medicine cabinet you never open, leave the packet on your bedside table or next to your toothbrush. Also…
- Find a home! There’s no point remembering your pill if you can’t then find the packet! Don’t leave your pills in random places around the house – find a permanent home so finding them is not a problem. Again, the bathroom or bedroom are obvious locations but try and use the same spot every time.
- Contingency plan. Despite our best efforts, mistakes can happen. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Make sure you have a clear plan of action should you miss a pill. There is a brief overview below or read “What to do if you miss a pill” for more information.
For more information on remembering to take your pill click here.
Missing the pill
Missing a pill is not uncommon – but you need to know how to proceed. If you miss the pill but are still within its time-window (24 hours for combined, three/twelve hours for mini) then simply take your missed pill and carry on as normal. You will still be guarded against pregnancy.
If you miss two or more combined pills, or are outside the time-window of the mini pill, then you may not be guarded against pregnancy. You should take the missed pill but use alternative forms of protection (e.g. condoms) during sexual intercourse for the following week. If you’ve had unprotected sex in this period you may wish to take emergency contraception. Visit our Morning After Pill clinic for further advice.
For more detailed information read What to do if you miss a pill.
Can you get pregnant on the pill if you vomit or have diarrhoea?
Yes, in some circumstances vomiting or diarrhoea can reduce the effectiveness of the pill, and put you at risk or unwanted pregnancy.
If you throw up within two hours of taking your pill, there is a chance the pill has not had time to be absorbed in your body. You should take another pill straight away. Provided you aren’t sick again you will continue to be protected against pregnancy and should resume your usual routine the following day.
If you are continuously sick or experience severe diarrhoea for more than 24 hours after taking your pill then its effectiveness may be affected. Count each day with sickness or diarrhoea as a day you have missed your pill. Continue to take your pill as normal but use extra protection like condoms during sex for the next week. If you have had unprotected sex during this period then you may not be protected against pregnancy. Read ‘What to do if you miss a pill’ or consult your pill packet for instructions on how to proceed.
Can you get pregnant on the pill if you drink alcohol?
No. It is a common myth that alcohol makes the pill less effective. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that alcohol directly impacts the pill’s effectiveness, although alcohol might increase the likelihood of you forgetting to take your pill.
Can you get pregnant on the pill if you take antibiotics?
It’s a commonly held belief that you can’t take antibiotics when on the pill, and that doing so will decrease the effectiveness of the pill. However, most antibiotics are perfectly safe to take with the pill and do not reduce its effectiveness. It’s thought that the only antibiotics that reduce the effectiveness of the pill are rifampicin and rifabutin. If you are using either of these types of antibiotics you might want to discuss with your GP about whether you should use another form of contraception.