It's the time of year that many of us decide to put off our periods because, quite simply, they're literally bloody inconvenient when there are so many holidays, festivals and pairs of shorts we need to be wearing. Until now, though, the period delay pill – norethisterone – which temporarily stops periods, was only available with a GP prescription.
But from today it is available on the high street without a prescription. Superdrug has announced that women aged 18 and over will be able to buy the drug at its stores on a walk-in basis or by making an appointment with its health clinic.
After a consultation and answering a questionnaire to show you're suitable, the pill is available to buy in packs of 30 (£29), 60 (£45) or 90 (£59), which will delay a period for 10, 20 or 30 days respectively (you need to take three pills a day).
If you're already on the combined contraceptive pill, you won't need the new pill. Instead, you can delay your period by skipping the one-week pill break at the end of the three-week course and starting a new pack straightaway. If you take the pills correctly, your period will then be delayed until the end of the second pack.
Meg O'Donnell, 26, took the period delay pill for the first time last month to postpone her period for her hen party. "I get very painful, heavy periods and I tend to feel really unwell and lifeless during my periods from the pain and loss of blood. I wanted to try and avoid that on such a special day," she explains.
She filled in an online form and paid her £9 NHS prescription charge, and describes the experience as positive overall. So much so that she'll be taking it again for her wedding this month. "It stopped the bleeding and period pains completely. I had pre-period symptoms like sore boobs and cramps but they stopped once I started the pills three times a day."
The pill's effectiveness varies between women and for O'Donnell it worked well, but when her natural period returned it was "really heavy and longer than usual". She adds: "I’m not looking forward to that as I’m going on a mini moon post-wedding!"
While reportedly effective and side effect-free for many women, norethisterone is by no means a silver bullet and carries its own set of risks. So how does this pill work? What are the potential side effects? Is it 100% safe? It sounds too good to be true – is it?
Here's what you need to know...
What is norethisterone?
Norethisterone is a synthetic version of progesterone, a sex hormone which occurs naturally in the body and is one of a group of hormones called progestogens. These are also found in combined contraceptive pills and the progestogen-only pill (POP) or mini-pill. Norethisterone is a type of progestogen-only pill.
How should I take it?
The intended usage is three pills each day that you're delaying your period. If, for example, you wanted to delay your period for 10 days, you'd need to buy a pack of 30 (£29) and take them as per the instructions. It's advisable if you want to delay your period for 20 days maximum.
To delay your period, the pill must first be taken three days before your period is due to start, and your period will be delayed until three days after the last tablet.
Will it stop me bleeding completely?
Some women may experience breakthrough bleeding or spotting when using the period delay pill.
Is it safe? What are the side effects?
Some women taking norethisterone have complained of breast tenderness, nausea, headache, and disrupted moods and sex drive, the NHS says, and it may not be suitable for women with a history of blood clots. Those with a history of thromboembolism, hypertension, diabetes mellitus and migraine should also be cautious, advises the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
There is also a small increase in the risk of breast cancer in women using, or who have recently used, a progestogen-only contraceptive pill (of which norethisterone is one), says NICE.
"The most important risk factor appears to be the age at which the contraceptive is stopped rather than the duration of use; the risk disappears gradually during the 10 years after stopping and there is no excess risk by 10 years."
NICE adds that this small possible increased risk of breast cancer "should be weighed against the benefits". So it's not something to be entered into lightly.
I'm struggling with my mental health – should I take the period delay pill?
Scientific and anecdotal evidence has drawn a link between the contraceptive pill – both the combined pill (which contains oestrogen and progestogen, a synthetic form of progesterone) and the progestogen-only pill – and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Norethisterone, as a type of progesterone, therefore carries risks to mental health.
If you already struggle with your mental health, you should consult your GP for advice before taking it. Depressed mood is listed by NICE as a reported side effect of norethisterone.
What if I'm on the contraceptive pill?
As we explained above, if you're on the combined pill you don't need the period delay pill and can continue taking that during your seven-day "break" to delay your period. This won't affect how effective the pill is as a contraceptive.
What if I'm using another type of contraception – can I take the period delay pill?
Yes, according to Dr Lucinda Farmer, spokesperson for the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH). "Contraceptive efficacy is not thought to be affected by concurrent use of norethisterone, so women may safely take norethisterone alongside their usual contraception," she told the Independent. This means you can take the pill if you have a non-hormonal coil (IUD) fitted, for example.
Does the period delay pill protect against pregnancy?
No, norethisterone isn't a contraceptive so you'll still need to use a condom if you're having sex.
Will it affect my libido?
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