OTC Birth Control Pill Headed to US Pharmacies: What Your Patients Should Know

Kerry Dooley Young, Medscape, March 14, 2024

Primary care clinicians have largely welcomed the arrival of Opill, the first over-the-counter (OTC) birth control pill from Perrigo, which will reach US pharmacy shelves this month. Although the medicine has a long track record of safe use, physicians and nurse practitioners may want to ready themselves to answer questions from patients about shifting to the option.

The switch to OTC status for the norgestrel-only contraceptive has the support of many physician groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

The end of the prescription-requirement removes a barrier to access for many women, especially those who lack insurance. But it also will take away a chief reason many women in their childbearing years make appointments with doctors, as they will no longer need prescriptions for birth control pills.

Anne-Marie Amies Oelschlager, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle, Washington, said she is also worried that the availability of an OTC pill will lead to missed opportunities to help patients avoid sexually transmitted diseases. For example, patients can get counseling about the need for testing for sexually transmitted diseases at the start of new relationships during a visit made to obtain a prescription for the pill.

“My hope is that they still follow our recommendations, which is to get tested with every partner,” said Oelschlager, who cares for many patients in their teens. “Adolescents are at a particularly high risk of infection compared to older ones.”

When clinicians do see patients, they may want to raise the issue of the OTC option and proper use. Patients will need to closely read materials provided for Opill, a step they might skip due to the ready access, according to Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research, which scrutinizes the safety of medical products.

“When something is sold over the counter, it’s perceived by individuals as being safe,” Zuckerman told Medscape Medical News. “There’s less concern and a little less interest in reading the instructions and reading the warnings.”

Considerations for Safety

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in July approved the sales of a daily 0.075 mg norgestrel tablet without prescription. Perrigo told Medscape Medical News it spent the intervening months ensuring retailers and consumers will receive education on the drug.

One of the biggest challenges for people using Opill may be sticking with the dosing schedule, according to Oelschlager.

“There are going to be people that have a harder time remembering to take a pill every day,” at the same time, said Oelschlager, who is chair of ACOG’s Clinical Consensus Gynecology Committee. “We need to watch and see what happens as it becomes more widely available, and people start using it.”

Unexpected vaginal bleeding is the most common adverse event linked to this form of birth control, with over one fifth of participants from one study of the OTC drug reporting this side effect, according to an FDA memo.

“It is more likely to be a tolerability issue rather than a safety issue,” the FDA wrote.

Many prescription birth control options contain estrogen, which is associated with venous thromboembolism (VTE). But Opill contains only norgestrel, a form of progestin, which is not associated with thrombosis. Patients may be more likely to overestimate their potential risks for VTE than to underestimate them, according to Kwuan Paruchabutr, DNP, president of National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health and an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

“This is a progesterone-only pill: The risk is relatively low” of VTE, Paruchabutr said.

Clinicians should also take special care with patients who are prescribed drugs for seizures, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and pulmonary hypertension or who are taking supplements containing St John’s wort.


The FDA has posted consumer-friendly information about the OTC pill that clinicians can refer their patients to. For clinicians who want more information, ACOG released a practice advisory about the switch in status for this progestin-only pill.

The Cost

While federal laws mandate employer-based and Medicaid plans cover prescription birth control pills for free, the OTC version will carry a cost, according to A. Mark Fendrick, MD, director of the University of Michigan Center for Value-Based Insurance Design in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Seven states, including New Mexico and New York, already have laws in effect that require health plans to cover certain OTC contraceptives without a prescription, according to a tally kept by the nonprofit research organization KFF.

Fendrick said it would be helpful for health plans to offer coverage for the OTC pill without copays even if they are not required to do so.

Priced at about $20 a month, Opill “is likely out of reach for many of the individuals who would most benefit from an OTC option,” Fendrick told Medscape Medical News in an email.


Kerry Dooley Young is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.

To read the entire article, click here OTC Birth Control Pill: What Clinicians Need to Know (medscape.com)