Between 2015 and 2017, the research organization Gynuity Health Projects conducted a survey to learn if people seeking pregnancy test services in multiple health centers throughout two states might be interested in missed period pills to bring back a delayed menstruation without prior confirmation of a potential pregnancy.
The results showed that people were interested in the pills for diverse reasons, including to end a potential pregnancy and for the psychological and emotional benefits when facing abortion stigma or stress while waiting for a late period to come.
The concept of menstrual regulation (which period pills fall under) is not new: For thousands of years, pregnant people around the world have been developing and practicing similar fertility control methods, including menstrual extraction, to restore their periods or end potential pregnancies.
The survey findings and her own research inspired Cari Sietstra, a reproductive health and justice advocate, to start the Period Pills Project to continue her research on menstrual regulation and help provide this option in the United States. Now, after years of collaboration with reproductive health organizations, universities, and health care providers, missed period pills are available through telehealth in all U.S. states and territories.
Read on to find out more about period pills: What they are, how to get them, and more.
This article is meant for informational purposes and does not substitute your doctor’s or other health care provider’s professional medical advice.
What, exactly, are period pills?
Period pills, also known as missed period pills or late period pills, are a safe and effective course of the medication misoprostol, sometimes taken in combination with mifepristone, to cause uterine cramping and bleeding and end a potential pregnancy. (Nonpregnant people also use them to treat other conditions, like gastric ulcers, which misoprostol was originally intended for.)
“There can be a lot of anxiety between the time of having unprotected sex and actually having a positive pregnancy test,” says Melissa Grant, chief operating officer of reproductive health provider carafem, which is part of the National Working Group on Period Pills. “But [there are] very few options besides frantically taking pregnancy tests, and calling people, and trying to figure out, ‘What do I do now?’”
Missed period pills are an option. People can take the oral medication to “bring down” or “bring back” their period as soon as it’s delayed, and without knowing if they are pregnant.
What happens when you take period pills?
Whether you’re pregnant or not, the pills cause cramping and bleeding, effectively bringing down your period. If you’re pregnant, the medications will end the pregnancy.
Prior to prescribing the pills to her patients, Dr. Michele Gomez, a family medicine physician in California, asks her patients a number of questions to make sure the medications are likely to work for them and to avoid missing anything that could harm them.
Some of these include:
- Whether the person usually has regular or roughly regular monthly periods.
- Whether the person has been on hormonal birth control.
- Whether they had an intrauterine device (IUD) when they believe they became pregnant.
- Whether they have an allergy to misoprostol or mifepristone.
These are important factors to consider during a consultation. For instance, if you get pregnant with an IUD, you’re at increased risk of developing an ectopic pregnancy, which period pills can’t end.
Where can I find period pills?
“Anyone who provides medication abortions can also provide period pills,” says Sietstra.
Your doctor can provide you information about how to get period pills, and the Period Pills Project website can also help you find a provider who offers them via telemedicine in your state or territory.
However, “anybody who has the ability to write prescriptions can prescribe period pills,” she explains. “The providers referred to on our site all specifically offer the pills for this purpose.”
Since the pills are still not covered by insurance, you may have to pay out of pocket. If that’s not an option for you, the Period Pills Project has a fund to help people pay for the consultation and for the pills. If you order from the Period Pills Project, you’ll receive the pills in the mail from a prescribing doctor.
What’s the difference between abortion pills and period pills?
Abortion pills and period pills are the same medications—misoprostol alone or in combination with mifepristone—but they are taken in different situations. People take abortion pills specifically to end a confirmed pregnancy.
As period pills, they’re taken (off-label) to bring on a late period and without having confirmed a pregnancy. They can be taken as soon as the person misses a period. This means that period pills aren’t just another name for early abortion. As Scientific American writes, “the drugs might not be considered abortion medication because the patient never learns whether they were pregnant in the first place.”
What’s the difference between Plan B pills and period pills?
Plan B is an emergency contraceptive pill. It contains the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel, designed to prevent pregnancy after birth control failure, such as a broken condom, or unprotected sex.
It’s meant to be taken within three days of unprotected sex. But Plan B pills, unlike period pills, can’t end a pregnancy.
What’s the difference between birth control pills and period pills?
Birth control pills are a hormonal medication that prevents pregnancy by stopping ovulation. No ovulation means there won’t be an egg for a sperm to fertilize, which would prevent a pregnancy.
Provided you have a regular 28-day cycle, you typically take one birth control pill per day for 21 days, then take a break for the next seven days, on which you will have a period.
Unlike period pills, birth control pills can’t end a pregnancy.
What should I keep in mind if I live in a state where abortion is banned?
While you can now access period pills in all 50 states via telemedicine, “we don’t know how conservative states will try to regulate period pills,” says Siestra. “We do want people in states where abortion is illegal to understand that this is an area that has not been addressed.”
If you have questions about what’s allowed in your state, contact the Repro Legal Helpline at 844-868-2812.