Can I Buy Over-the-Counter Birth Control Pills?

How to Get Birth Control Pills

Over the Counter Birth Control Pills
Over-the-Counter Birth Control Pills?. Photo © 2016 Dawn Stacey

One of the most common questions that people ask me is whether or not they can buy over-the-counter birth control pills. Although there are some great birth control options that you can buy over-the-counter,  unfortunately, birth control pills are not one of them.

Are There Any Over-The-Counter Birth Control Pills That I Can Buy?

Buying hormonal birth control over the counter is a gray area. As of now, the only available over-the-counter birth control pills are for emergency contraception.

You can buy the morning-after pill, such as Plan B One-Step (or its generic versions, Take Action, Next Choice One Dose, and My Way) over the counter -- no matter how old you are.

Even though the morning-after pill can be bought over the counter, sometimes it may be hard to find in a store. Usually, it will be located:

  • On the shelf in the family planning aisle.
  • On the shelf, but contained inside a clear, plastic box -- you will need to take the box to the cashier, who will unlock it and take out the morning-after pill box when you pay for it.
  • At the pharmacy or at the check-out counter. If this is the case, there should be a sign (in the family planning aisle) that tells you where in the store you need to go. 

How To Get Birth Control Pills

To get birth control pills (either progestin-only pills, combination pills, or extended cycle pills), you do need a doctor’s prescription -- so you can not get these birth control pills over the counter.

In order to write this prescription, you will need to talk with your doctor about your medical history, get your blood pressure checked, and have a breast and pelvic exam.

Why Is There a Need For An Exam to Get Over-The-Counter Birth Control Pills?

There is a lot of debate over this topic. Many women argue that menstruation and wanting to prevent pregnancy are not diseases.

Plus, the birth control pill is not a dangerous medicine. When you think about it, there is no real risk of drug abuse... if you take too many pills, you're more likely to being throwing-up -- not getting high. And most of the pill's side effects are not very serious.

This leads many to wonder if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking the best stance on this issue. By not allowing for over-the-counter birth control pills, is the government making it more difficult for women to get and use the pill? Also, by requiring medical exams in order to get the pill, it makes it harder for women who work long hours, and are not able to take time off. On the other hand, some doctors argue that if women could get over-the-counter birth control pills, they would never come in for their yearly well-women exams. 

Guidelines For How to Get The Pill:

General medical guidelines and research suggest that hormonal contraception (like the pill) can be safely prescribed just on the basis of obtaining a careful medical history and blood pressure measurement. Breast and pelvic exams as well as pap smears and sexually transmitted disease screenings, are important to have done as part of staying healthy.

These are an important part of family planning and reproductive health care. Routine STD screenings are recommended because women who use birth control pills are less likely to also use condoms (that protect against these infections). That being said, though, the information doctors get from these exams do not tell them if a woman can or cannot safely use birth control pills. 

It is important that you have an honest conversation with your doctor because there are some women who are not good candidates ​for the pill. This is why it is important that your doctor does a thorough medical history with you (and that you are truthful about your history).

Because the pill can increase your blood pressure, you should also have your blood pressure checked regularly for the first few months after you start using the pill.

Do I Have Any Other Options?

You may be like so many other women out there -- you want to use the pill, but are not because you're afraid to have a pelvic exam and pap smear.  Well, it seems that the general medical consensus supports a change in practice. Research shows that birth control pills can be safely prescribed based on a careful review of your medical history and blood pressure measurement. For most women, no further exams are necessary. And recent guidelines created by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also suggest that birth control pills can be safely prescribed without a pelvic exam.

If your doctor insists that you must have a breast and pelvic exam in order to give you your pill prescription, explain your concerns and/or fears, and request not to have these exams done. You can also call around and find a different doctor who follows WHO's and the ACOG's guidelines for prescribing birth control pills.

The Bottom Line:

The pill is an effective, discreet and convenient birth control method. It allows you to have control over your fertility, to manage your period and to prevent pregnancy, and its use probably results in fewer abortions. There are some good arguments that support purchasing over-the-counter birth control pills (without the need for a prescription). But since there are some women who should not use the pill, there are also reasons why it is important that you see a doctor in order to use the pill.

Even routine pelvic and breast exams, pap smears and STD testing may be uncomfortable (and are definitely not something most women look forward to doing), they are an important part of your overall health care. These screenings may not be effective for determining whether or not you are a good candidate for the pill, but they are essential for early detection of life-threatening diseases.


Mayo Clinic. Birth Control Pill FAQ.

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