We all know the rules: Take your birth control pill every day at the same time, no matter what. Write it in your calendar, set an alarm on your phone if you have to — just do it. It's been drilled into us by every OB-GYN we've ever visited, as well as every mom-like figure we've crossed paths with. But there comes a time when even the most competent woman taking birth control messes this one up. Whether it's during a weekend getaway or just over a particularly busy couple of days, there's bound to be a time when we simply forget to take our pill.
Considering how common this mistake is, it's shocking how little we know about what really happens in the body after we forget a pill. A lot of the current information about what happens when we skip birth control pills unfortunately stems from a lawsuit, in which over 100 women became pregnant due to a labeling error on packages of birth control pills. Because some packs of pills were incorrectly labeled, the "active" pills (which contain hormones) and the "reminder" placebo pills were mixed up.
In the midst of all this chaos, doctors were able to gather some information about what truly takes place in women's bodies when pills aren't taken correctly. It is beyond horrible that these women had to go through this, of course, and we'd all be better off if this error hadn't happened, but it is good that we have this information on hand.
Before we go on, remember that not all pills are created equal. For example, some have varying hormonal formulas and thus work a bit differently. So it's best to speak with your OB-GYN if you forget to take your pill, to learn what that might mean for you.
Here are four facts about what happens in what happens in your body when you skip birth control pills:
1. You Might Start A New Menstrual Cycle
As unlikely as it sounds, this could happen if you've skipped more than a few days of your pill. Dr. Jill Rabin, the co-chief of the Women's Health Program at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System of New York, told the Huffington Post that if you miss a few pills, you may be facing a brand new cycle, due to your normal routine getting thrown off so suddenly. It's hard to believe that our bodies can start to bounce back into their own rhythms in such a short amount of time, but that's the reality of our amazing reproductive systems.
What this new cycle looks like will vary from woman to woman, depending on your natural ovulation schedule and what was going on down there before the pill even came into the picture. Keep in mind that there may be no signs at all that you're entering a new cycle, so don't assume anything without speaking with your OB-GYN.
2. Your Ovaries Might Release An Egg
If you're not looking to get pregnant, the pill is your friend because it helps you even out the levels of estrogen and progesterone in your body. This prevents the natural 24-hour-long spike of estrogen required to make ovulation happen from occurring.
Forget to take the pill for as little as a two or three days, though, and your ovaries might get confused about all the hormonal changes. In fact, they may get so bewildered by the changes that they feel compelled to ovulate — and there would be not enough hormones present to stop them from doing so. Cue a fertile egg potentially being released into the wild, determined to find an eligible sperm. Yikes.
3. The Mucus Around Your Cervix Starts To Shrink
Balancing out the levels of estrogen and progesterone isn't the only job your oral contraceptive has. It also forbids any sperm and egg union by beefing up your production of cervical mucus, which ensures the sperm can't mosey its way through to an area it doesn't belong.
It doesn't take long for this action to be reversed, though. So if you're not regularly equipping yourself with birth control, you might be looking at less and less protection around your cervix wall. Sperm could then break in and fertilize an egg. Remember that sperm can stay in the body for five full days, so it could all come down to intercourse you had a few days before your two skipped pills, resulting in sperm getting to an available egg that is no longer barricaded in by thick cervical mucus.
4. You Could Get Pregnant
Combine all of the above with unprotected sex, and there is a possibility that you come out on the other side expecting. It's not a high likelihood, but it's definitely a concern, especially if you've forgotten a few in a row and you've subsequently lost track of where you are in your pack.
You face this risk if you neglect to take one pill, in fact — that is, if it's the first active one of a pack. Dr. Nikki B. Zite, program director and professor of OB-GYN surgery at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine, told Fox News that the first week of pills is the most important. That's because it takes seven consecutive days on the pill to effectively ward off ovulation, so skipping out just one of those may result in pregnancy. If this happens, make sure you're using an additional, equally reliable form of protection if you plan on having sex.
She also says that if you forget two pills in a row at any given time, it's safest to consider yourself unprotected, and find yourself some other means of contraception before you get down and dirty with your partner. Depending on when you forgot to take your pill(s), you may have to even toss your pack in the garbage and start a brand new one, just to get back on track and be on the safe side. If this happens to you, call your doctor to find out when you should start your new pack.
The details might differ from one woman to the next, depending on what kind of oral contraceptive you're taking, and what your ovulation patterns are like without the pill. Whatever the case may be, it's never a good idea to skip the pill without any insurance plan to fall back on. Your body doesn't wait long to make its own changes, so get some back-up forms of contraception and speak to your doctor right away if you feel like you might be left unprotected in the uncharted waters of unwanted pregnancy.
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