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Tablets that delay women’s periods can be bought for as little as £9.50 with harmful side effects

Rebecca Barnes was looking forward to a trip to Ibiza with her new partner — but the timing wasn’t ideal.

Then she read about medication that could delay her period, so went to her GP who prescribed it for her.

The 44-year-old journalist from North London is one of a growing number of women who have taken norethisterone, brand name Utovlan — a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone — to delay their periods so that they don’t clash with big events such as holidays, weddings or exams.

The drug is taken three days before a period and can be used for 17 days.

Norethisterone, brand name Utovlan is a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone to delay women’s periods 

Norethisterone has been used to treat conditions such as endometriosis (where womb-like tissue grows elsewhere in the body) for more than 25 years, but demand for the drug to delay periods is soaring, to go by the evidence of the growing number of places you can get it.

For while once you had to visit your GP for norethisterone, now it’s available from online pharmacies including Boots, Superdrug and LloydsPharmacy. You fill in your details and have the drug sent to your home for as little as £9.50, without seeing a medical professional.

This concerns experts because the drug has side-effects — including heart palpitations, bloating, tender breasts and nausea, according to the packaging.

Rarely, it can raise the risk of life-threatening deep vein thrombosis, which can result in a stroke or blood clot in the lungs. (Some GPs advise wearing compression socks to avoid this if you’re delaying your period for a long-haul holiday.)

Did you know? 

While some people claim that drinking alcohol helps them fall asleep, research suggests it harms sleep quality.

In particular, it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the phase in which we dream that is thought to play a role in learning, memory and mood. 

One drink is enough to delay the first period of REM sleep, and the more you drink, the more severe the effects, a review in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found.

The first time that Rebecca took the drug, she thought it was ‘fantastic’. Then, three days after stopping the norethisterone, her period arrived and it was a lot heavier than usual. ‘I felt completely exhausted and was going to the loo every hour — it interfered with my job and social life,’ she recalls. ‘My doctor didn’t mention that this would happen.’

Indeed, online forums are full of women reporting similar experiences, with some saying that they had passed large, painful clots.

‘This can be a common side-effect,’ says Dr Anita Mitra, a London-based NHS obstetrician and gynaecologist. ‘Norethisterone is a synthetic form of progesterone.

‘In the natural cycle, progesterone levels drop, causing the womb to shed its lining. If you keep taking progesterone, the womb lining will build up.

‘So, if you delay your period for a couple of weeks, you will get a heavier period when it arrives.

‘It may also be more painful, as period pains are caused by the uterus contracting. In this case, it will have more lining to squeeze out.’

Some women also report feeling irritable, tearful or anxious, possibly as a result of the fluctuation in hormone levels the drug causes.

Women take the drug to delay their periods so that they don¿t clash with big events such as holidays, weddings or exams (file photo)

Women take the drug to delay their periods so that they don’t clash with big events such as holidays, weddings or exams (file photo)

Jane, a 28-year-old from Cheshire (who doesn’t want to be identified), bought norethisterone online from Boots before attending a music festival.

‘There was a warning of potential mental health effects, which concerned me, as I can be quite anxious.

‘However, I’ve not got a formal mental health diagnosis, so I thought I’d be fine.’

But within days of taking it, she began to feel ‘very depressed’. ‘I kept bursting into tears and cried in front of my colleagues in a meeting,’ she says. ‘It was so bad that I decided to deal with my period in the horrible festival toilets, rather than continue taking it.’

Shirin Irani, a consultant gynaecologist at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, advises women against buying the pills on the internet. ‘It’s very easy for people to fill in a form in a certain way to get the pills, but I would strongly advise against women bypassing their GP,’ she says.

For occasional use, Ms Irani says norethisterone is unlikely to cause any harm, but warns: ‘If you take it too often, you can end up changing your cycle or having problems such as bleeding between periods.’

After trying norethisterone three times, each time, Rebecca had heavy periods and now says she won’t use it again: ‘The side-effects were just not worth it.’