PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Synonyms: POP, mini-pill
Approximately 6% of women aged 16-49 years in the UK use the progestogen-only contraceptive pill (POCP). It is particularly used when combined hormonal contraception is contra-indicated - eg, breast-feeding mothers.
Currently, the following POCPs are available in the UK:
- Norethisterone 350 micrograms - Micronor® and Noriday®.
- Levonorgestrel 30 micrograms - Norgeston®.
- Desogestrel 75 micrograms - Cerazette®, Aizea®, Cerelle® and Nacrez®.
Levonelle® is progestogen-only emergency contraception.
Mode of action
- The cervical mucus becomes more viscous and impenetrable to sperm. This is the primary mode of action for traditional POCPs.
- Ovulation has been shown to be inhibited in about 60% of cycles (although it does not occur in 100% of cycles normally). With desogestrel, ovulation is inhibited in 97% of cycles. Thus, suppression of ovulation is not the prime mechanism of action for traditional POCPs, whereas it is for those containing desogestrel.
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Advantages of a progestogen-only contraceptive pill (compared with a combined oral contraceptive pill)
- It is an effective and safe form of contraception and can be used in many conditions where oestrogens are contra-indicated - eg venous thromboembolism (VTE), past history of VTE, or migraine with aura. It is a suitable alternative for those aged over 35 who need to be changed from a COCP, heavy smokers, and those with hypertension, valvular heart disease, diabetes mellitus, and migraine. There is, however, very little evidence regarding cardiovascular risk and the POCP.
- It contains an even lower dose of progestogen than low-dose combined contraceptives and no oestrogen.
- It can be used during breast-feeding.
- It is suitable for women about to undergo major surgery or surgery on their legs.
- There is no evidence that the POCP is associated with an increased risk of VTE.
Disadvantages of a progestogen-only contraceptive pill (compared with a combined oral contraceptive pill)
- It has to be taken meticulously at the same time each day. The error for forgotten pills is just three hours late for traditional POCPs. Newer POCPs contain desogestrel which has a licence for 12 hours.
- It is just as susceptible to substances that cause enzyme induction, like rifampicin, many anticonvulsants and St John's wort.
- It does not control the menstrual cycle as effectively as the COCP.
- It may produce irregular menstruation or amenorrhoea. This may be severe enough for some that it leads to cessation of using the POCP. Generally, around 2 in 10 women become amenorrhoeic, 4 in 10 have regular menses and 4 in 10 have irregular menses.
- There may be minor side-effects such as breast tenderness, skin changes, and headaches. These usually improve with time.
- There is an increased risk of ovarian cysts, perhaps up to 30%. They are usually reversible and do not require operation.
- There may be a small increased risk of breast cancer for women taking the POCP.
The UK Medical Eligibility Criteria (UKMEC) should be used to determine safety of prescribing the POCP for individual women. These recommendations divide conditions into four categories:
- Category 1: no restriction to use.
- Category 2: advantages of use of the method of contraception generally outweigh the risks.
- Category 3: the risks generally outweigh the advantages. Use not usually recommended.
- Category 4: use of the contraceptive method would result in unacceptable risk to health.
The only condition for the POCP which comes into UKMEC Category 4, and therefore is contra-indicated, is breast cancer.
However, there are a number of conditions which are classed as UKMEC 3, in which risks usually outweigh benefits, and therefore the POCP would not usually be an appropriate choice of contraception. These include:
- Past history of breast cancer.
- Severe cirrhosis.
- Liver tumours.
- Stroke and coronary heart disease (UKMEC 3 for continuation, 2 for initiation).
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) with positive antiphospholipid antibodies.
- Those on medication, including antiretroviral therapy, enzyme-inducing anticonvulsants (but not lamotrigine which is contra-indicated with the COCP), and enzyme-inducing antibiotics such as rifampicin and rifabutin.
Starting the progestogen-only contraceptive pill
Women not currently using any contraception: it is usually started on the first day of menstruation, in which case contraceptive cover is immediate. If started any day up to the fifth day from the start of menstruation, no additional contraceptive precautions are required. If started at any other time in the cycle, pregnancy should be excluded first, and additional contraceptive precautions should be used for 48 hours (eg, condoms or abstinence).
After childbirth: it can be started on day 21, irrespective of whether the woman is breast-feeding. There is no need for contraception before then. If started after 21 days, additional contraceptive precautions should be used for 48 hours.
Following miscarriage or termination of pregnancy: it can be started immediately after miscarriage or termination of pregnancy up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and it is immediately effective. If started after five days after the miscarriage or termination, additional contraceptive precautions should be used for 48 hours.
Changing from the COCP: when changing from the COCP to a POCP, start at the end of a COCP pack, moving straight on from the last COCP to the POCP the following day. If the COCP is an every day (ED) pack then start after the last active pill. No additional contraception is required.
Starting after emergency contraception: start the POCP the next day. Women should use additional contraceptive precautions for two days following levonorgestrel, and for nine days after ulipristal acetate. A pregnancy test should be done after three weeks.
Changing from injectable progestogen-only contraception: start the POCP on the day the injection is due. No additional contraception is required.
Changing from the implant: start the POCP immediately. No additional contraception is required.
Changing from the intrauterine system (IUS): start the POCP on the day of removal (ideally removal should be within five days of the start of menstruation). No additional contraception is required.
Changing from the intrauterine contraceptive device (IUCD): start the POCP on the day of removal (ideally removal should be within five days of the start of menstruation. No additional contraception is required. It can also be started at least two days before removal of the IUCD. Additional contraception is required for 48 hours if it is not started within the first five days of the menstrual cycle.
It has been thought in the past that the POCP may be less effective in women weighing more than 70 kg, and that they may need a higher dose. However, the current position is that evidence does not support the unlicensed use of two traditional POCPs in women weighing more than 70 kg. There is no evidence that efficacy of desogestrel pills is affected by weight.
Pills must be taken at about the same time each day. This should be within three hours of the time taken the previous day. For desogestrel pills, this can be up to 12 hours.
It is regarded as late if the POCP is taken more than three hours after the usual time (or 12 hours with desogestrel-containing pills). The missed pill should be taken as soon as possible. The subsequent pills should be taken as usual but additional contraception should be used until pills have been taken correctly for two days. No more than two pills should be taken on the same day. If unprotected sexual intercourse has taken place during the time when the POCP cover is doubtful, consider the need for emergency contraception.
Vomiting or severe diarrhoea may impair absorption of the hormone. Additional contraception should be used during this phase and for two days afterwards.
Irregular menstrual bleeding patterns are common and may settle with time. If not, consider a change to a different formulation or a different type of contraception. (There is no evidence that changing the dose or the type of POCP improves bleeding, however.) On the POCP, generally around 2 in 10 women become amenorrhoeic, 4 in 10 have regular menses and 4 in 10 have irregular menses. If irregular bleeding is persistent, consider other causes of irregular menstrual bleeding and exclude where relevant.
There is no good evidence that the POCP causes weight gain, loss of bone density, headache or mood changes.
Liver enzyme-inducing drugs may interfere with efficacy of the POCP. Women should normally be advised to use alternative forms of contraception. For short courses of enzyme-inducing medication, consider a one-off injection of progestogen-only injectable contraception. If continuing the POCP, advise use of additional precautions (such as condoms or abstinence) during use of the enzyme-inducing medication, and for 28 days afterwards. Enzyme-inducing medication includes:
- Anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, phenytoin, barbiturates, primidone, and topiramate. Lamotrigine does not affect the POCP.
- Antibiotics - rifabutin and rifampicin (potent enzyme inducers).
- St John's wort.
- Antiretrovirals - particularly ritonavir-boosted protease inhibitors.
Progesterone receptor modulators. Ulipristal acetate is available as ellaOne® in a 30 mg dose for emergency contraception, and Esmya® in a 5 mg dose for fibroids. Use of the POCP is not recommended for women taking Esmya®, or for 12 days after finishing it. Women who are taking the POCP after use of ellaOne® should use additional contraceptive precautions until the start of the next menstrual period or for nine days if amenorrhoeic.
Review 10-12 weeks after starting. After this, follow-up should be at least every 12 months.
At follow up appointments:
- Consider checking blood pressure. (This is not mandatory, and does not affect prescribing, but is considered good practice.)
- Ensure the woman is taking the pill correctly, and knows what to do in the event of missing pills.
- Check the POCP is still the most appropriate form of contraception. Consider the use of long-acting reversible contraception (LARCs). Offer verbal and/or written advice about LARCs.
- Check there is no change in medication which might affect the efficacy of the POCP, including over-the-counter preparations.
- Check there has been no change in eligibility (ie no new medical conditions).
Desogestrel is a newer progestogen that is converted in the body to the active form of etonogestrel. There are four contraceptive pills containing desogestrel, currently licensed in the UK: Cerazette®, Aizea®, Cerelle® and Nacrez®. The feature of this formulation that is likely to have the greatest impact is the 12-hour window in which to remember to take it, rather than just three hours.
Amenorrhoea is more likely to occur than with older POCPs, as is irregular menstrual bleeding. The overall failure rate for the desogestrel-only pill has not been shown to be significantly different to other POCPs. There are insufficient data to compare types of POCP with each other.
Further reading & references
- Progestogen-only Pills; Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (March 2015)
- Contraception and Sexual Health 2008/09; Office for National Statistics
- Milsom I, Korver T; Ovulation incidence with oral contraceptives: a literature review. J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care. 2008 Oct;34(4):237-46.
- FSRH Healthcare Statement: Venous Thromboembolism (VTE) and Hormonal Contraception; Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, November 2014
- Contraception - progestogen-only methods; NICE CKS, June 2012 (UK access only)
- UK Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use; Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (2009 - Revised May 2010)
- Drug Interactions with Hormonal Contraception; Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (January 2011 - updated January 2012)
- FRSH Statement on drug interactions between hormonal contraception and ulipristal products: Esmya® and ellaOne®; Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, November 2012
- Grimes DA, Lopez LM, O'Brien PA, et al; Progestin-only pills for contraception. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Nov 13;11:CD007541. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007541.pub3.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Mary Harding
Prof Cathy Jackson