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What contraceptive pills can you get over the counter (OTC)?

What contraceptive pills can you get over the counter (OTC)?

If you’re thinking about contraception for the first time, you might have wondered whether it’s possible to buy birth control pills over the counter.

It isn’t – over the counter contraceptive pills are not currently available in Australia. A GP, prescriber or sexual health expert will have to prescribe them to you.

We’ll explore the types of contraception people can get over the counter here and abroad, and look at how you can access the right type of contraception for you.

 

Daniel Atkinson
Medically reviewed by
Daniel Atkinson, GP Clinical Lead
Table of contents
Medically reviewed by
Dr Daniel Atkinson
GP Clinical Lead
on October 26, 2022.
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Daniel
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Can you buy any contraceptive pills over the counter at a pharmacy?

To understand how you can access contraception in Australia and why over-the-counter contraceptive pills aren’t available, it helps to know some key prescribing definitions:

Prescription-only medicine (POM)

Refers to medication that only a highly-qualified medical professional, such as an AMC-registered doctor, can prescribe. A prescription is when a clinician signs off on you receiving a medication or other treatment, because it's right for you. Doctors can also e-prescribe, which is more commonly practiced today.

Example: The vast majority of contraceptive pills.

Pharmacy-only medicines (P)

Refers to medication that you must buy in the presence of a pharmacist. Not usually displayed on open shelves. Typically, a pharmacist may ask you some questions about your health and symptoms before selling you pharmacy-only medications.

Example: Some mini pills.

Over the counter medication (OTC), or general sale medication.

Refers to medication you can easily buy in a pharmacy as an ordinary retail purchase, no prescription or licence is required.

Example: Paracetamol, condoms. 

It’s important to understand the distinction between pharmacy-only medicines (P) and over-the-counter, or general-sale medicines. General sales medicines can be found by searching on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).

Even though you can access pharmacy-only medication at a counter, a pharmacist still has to ask some questions about your health to make sure what they issue is suitable. When it comes to general sale medication (OTC medication), these rules don’t apply. You can buy them ‘no questions asked.’

Until recently, all oral contraceptives were prescription-only medications (POM) in the UK.

However, in 2021 it was announced that certain mini pills (ones that contain just progesterone) would be available to purchase as pharmacy-only medications.

It remains to be seen whether similar changes will ever be introduced in Australia.

What contraceptive pills don’t need a prescription?

At the time of writing, two mini pills are currently approved as pharmacy-only medications in the UK, which are Lovima and Hana. You can’t buy other pills, like Cerazette, for example, over-the-counter. Being pharmacy-only medications, you don’t need a prescription to buy either Lovima or Hana. But a pharmacist will still need to perform a quick consultation to ensure they’re safe and suitable.

In Australia, both the pill and the mini-pill require a prescription. A clinician can advise you about which contraceptive pill is best suited to you.

What birth control do I need a prescription for?

Hormonal contraception is prescription-only in Australia. This means all combined pills, the contraceptive ring and the majority of mini pills will require a prescription.

But you can buy non-hormonal methods of contraception, such as condoms, over the counter in all Australian pharmacies.

Can you buy the contraceptive ring or patch over the counter?

The contraceptive ring requires a prescription. It contains two synthetic female hormones to help prevent pregnancy. Because of this, and because of the potential for side effects, you’ll need to have a consultation with a doctor or prescriber before they can issue a prescription.

Nuvaring is the only type of contraceptive ring currently used in Australia. A doctor or nurse will need to demonstrate how to use the contraceptive ring the first time you use it. After this, it can be self-applied.

Birth control patches aren’t widely available, and other treatments are usually recommended.

Contraceptive injections, implants, hormonal intrauterine devices (HIDs) and diaphragms are some of the options a clinician can advise you about, and others are also available.

Can pharmacists prescribe birth control?

In Australia, pharmacists aren’t currently able to prescribe birth control. This may change in the future, as the Pharmacy Board of Australia are continuing to push for pharmacists to be given the authority to do so. This means that for now, you’ll need your contraceptive pills to be prescribed by a doctor.

Since 2006, certain medical professionals who are not doctors have been allowed to prescribe medication in the UK. Nurses, pharmacists, dentists and certain other medical professionals can train and register as independent prescribers.

Why do contraceptive pills need a prescription?

Contraceptive pills contain synthetic female sex hormones called oestrogen and progesterone. Sometimes, they contain both (combined pills) and others only contain one hormone (mini pills). Introducing additional hormones into the body can carry some risk. Taking contraception has the ability to cause side effects, and it’s not safe for everyone to take oral birth control. Each pill comes with a number of warnings and contraindications.

It is for this reason that all contraceptive pills are prescription-only medications (POM) in Australia.

Risks of hormonal contraception

Hormonal contraception can also carry risks when taken, namely as side effects. Common side effects of hormonal contraception can include, but are not limited to, headaches, spotting or period changes, nausea, breast tenderness, weight gain, mood changes, decreased libido and vaginal discharge. Contraceptives which contain hormones as their active ingredients have an increased risk association with blood clots.

While contraception can be highly effective, as much as 99% with perfect use, there is always a small risk that an unintended pregnancy may occur while taking hormonal contraceptives.

Hormonal contraception also isn’t suitable for everyone to take. For example, contraception which contains oestrogen cannot be taken by women who are over 35 and smoke, are very overweight and who take certain medications. For these women, the mini pill is likely a more suitable option as it only contains progesterone but works just as well as the combined pill.

If you have certain health conditions, birth control may not be safe for you to take. For example, with reference to combination contraceptives, you should not take these if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Migraines accompanied by aura
  • Lupus
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoke and have high blood pressure
  • Liver tumour
  • Jaundice
  • Unexplained vaginal bleeding
  • Cancers affecting the breasts, vagina, cervix or uterus
  • Coronary artery disease
  • History of stroke or heart attack
  • Blood clots or history of blood clots.

Choosing the best contraceptive for you

Different hormonal contraceptives may be suitable for different people, and certain pills might be more preferable to you than others in terms of side effects.

Things to consider when thinking about contraception include:

  • Effectiveness
  • Whether they need to be taken daily
  • Whether you’re prone to forgetfulness or not remembering
  • Are you comfortable inserting something into your vagina?
  • Do you mind if contraception impacts your period?

If you respond more adversely to hormonal contraception in terms of side effects, you might want to try ‘low-dose’ contraceptives, which contain lower amounts of hormones than older, more traditional pills.

If you experience oestrogenic side effects, those caused by the introduction of synthetic oestrogen, you might want to try the mini pill (which contains progesterone only).

Monitoring your use

Particularly if you’re taking contraception for the first time, a doctor or prescriber will want to monitor how you respond to it and whether it still seems suitable after a certain period of time. They may ask questions about any side effects you’ve noticed and whether you feel comfortable to continue taking the particular contraceptive they prescribed. They may also check your blood pressure regularly.

What happens at a birth control consultation?

If you’re thinking about taking contraception, you can expect to undertake a quick consultation with your doctor or prescriber. They’ll want to ask a number of questions to ensure that hormonal birth control is safe and suitable for you. Examples of what they may ask can include:

  • Have you ever taken hormonal contraception before?
  • Do you know if your blood pressure is low, normal or high?
  • Do you suffer from any medical conditions?
  • Do you smoke?
  • How is your mental health?
  • When was the last time you had a smear test?
    When was the last time you had a period?

My pill isn’t working for me: Can I switch?

At Treated, it’s easy to switch your pill if it isn’t working for you. Answer some questions about your health and our clinicians will prescribe contraception if it’s safe and suitable for you. Once you subscribe you have easy access to our team, meaning if you have problems you can discuss them and find the best treatment for you. We’ll deliver your contraceptive pill regularly, in discreet packaging.

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When we present you with stats, data, opinion or a consensus, we’ll tell you where this came from. And we’ll only present data as clinically reliable if it’s come from a reputable source, such as a state or government-funded health body, a peer-reviewed medical journal, or a recognised analytics or data body. Read more in our editorial policy.

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