We've all been there. Arrived at a hotel, hostel or Airbnb, started to unpack and then discovered you've forgotten something: the pill. If this has happened to you, you are not alone. One in four women have experienced this while abroad, according to a new study from online health service Zava.
The findings show that when faced with the prospect of a holiday with no contraceptive pill, we have to improvise – usually by borrowing, if that's an option. One in 10 women resorted to borrowing enough to get them through their break from friends. Even for women who remember to pack the pill, lots don't bring enough for the entire trip – 31% of women have been caught short or forgotten to get a new prescription before their holiday.
During a recent trip to Barcelona, 23-year-old Eki from London faced this exact problem. She told Refinery29: "I was on a girls' trip and forgot one of my packs of contraceptive. I was there for a week and had enough for three days. I ended up running all over Barcelona trying to find a pharmacy that stocked my brand but was unlucky." When she returned to the UK after not taking the pill for a few days, her period was painful. "I had messed up my dates by skipping days then double dosing, which resulted in me having the worst period of my life!"
This week, Superdrug announced they would be stocking norethisterone – a pill that temporarily stops periods, no prescription needed. But what happens if you've forgotten to bring the pill altogether? Dr Kathryn Basford answers a few common questions if you are in a bind.
What is the reality when faced with an extended period of time away without the pill? Can I get it abroad and will it be safe to do so?
Until Brexit is officially underway, all prescriptions in Europe are valid according to Dr Basford. "While the UK is still in the EU, a prescription dispensed by your doctor is valid in all EU countries. But it’s worth remembering that the medication might not be available or might have a different name."
What happens if I take the pill at the wrong time or take two in one day?
Basford states some pills are more timely than others: "If you’re on the progesterone-only pill, it’s really important to take this at the same time every day, and if you take the pill more than three hours late it might not be effective at preventing pregnancy*. If you’re on the combined pill you have a little more leeway, with a window of around 12 hours before you risk losing its effectiveness." What's the best method to keep track of timings? "You could also keep either your phone or watch on UK time while you’re in a different time zone. There are also apps available that can remind you when to take your pill." Those travelling to exotic countries take note: "If you’re heading to somewhere exotic and you suffer from vomiting or diarrhoea while you’re away, this can make your contraceptive less effective too."
*There are two types of progesterone-only pill. If you are on a desogestrel pill (Cerazette is an example), it's important to take it within the same twelve hour window.
What happens if you forget to bring the pill altogether?
There may be some possible side effects. "If you’re on the combined pill and you miss two or more in a row, your protection against pregnancy may be affected. And depending where you are in the pack, you may have spotting or bleeding similar to your normal monthly bleed." Those who are on holiday in the UK may still be able to order a prescription to a nearby pharmacy. If you're away for a while, you may develop physical side effects. "You may notice some side effects of coming off the pill, such as mood swings or changes to your skin or weight. But this should all go back to normal once you’re back home and start back up with your pill again."
Should I ration the pills I have or try to borrow more from a friend?
Not according to Dr Basford. "You should only take medication that is prescribed specifically for you." Her advice is continue to take your pill as normal until you run out.
Can I use my pill to prevent my period coming on holiday?
"If you take the combined pill it’s possible to delay your period by taking the pill 'back to back' – in other words, skipping the break when you finish a pack and moving straight on to the next one." The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggests for most people, a break isn't always vital. "There may be a couple of side effects from this such as nausea, diarrhoea or some spotting, but apart from that in most cases it’s perfectly healthy."
If I forget my pill on a one-week (or two-week) holiday, how long should I wait before taking my pill again when I get home? And how long before I’m safe to have sex without a condom afterwards?
Finish any remaining pills you may have left. "Take the last pill you missed as well as your pill for that day when you get home. Leave any other missed pills and carry on with the rest of the pack as normal. If there are more than seven pills left before the end of the pack, continue to take them and then take your break as normal." Basford recommends waiting a few days before having sex without a condom. "You should use condoms as protection throughout the time you’re off the pill, and for seven days once you start taking it again."
This piece was amended on at 12:15pm on 9/8/19 to include additional information about the progesterone-only pill