Birth control pills, commonly referred to as “the pill,” are considered one of the safest methods to prevent unintended pregnancy. They are a highly effective contraceptive when taken correctly (at the same time daily).
According to a 2012 National Health Statistics Reports, 62 percent of women of reproductive age were using contraception between 2006 and 2010.
There are two types of contraceptive pills, both of which consist of synthetic forms of hormones produced naturally in the body.
The pills either contain progestin alone or estrogen and progestin together. These hormones regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle, and their fluctuating levels play an essential role in fertility.
Apart from preventing pregnancy, there are many pros of using birth control pills, including reduced menstrual cramping, regularity of menstrual cycle, acne-free skin, and lower risk of ovarian cysts as well as ovarian and endometrial cancer.
However, birth control pills can have many side effects, which doctors may not tell you. Before starting on a pill, it is important to understand both the pros as well as the cons.
Here are the top 10 side effects of birth control pills your doctor may not tell you.
1. Headaches and Migraines
Hormonal fluctuations due to birth control pills can contribute to headaches or migraines.
Certain birth control pills can lead to a decrease in the estrogen level in the body. A low estrogen level may lead to headaches or aggravate migraines, if you already suffer from them.
A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that most women suffer from headaches within a month of starting the estrogen-progestin oral contraceptives. However, the headaches tend to improve or disappear with continued use.
Another study published in Current Opinion in Neurology in 2014 reports that elevated risk of migraines is associated with significant drops in estrogen levels.
If you suffer from headaches, switching to different pills that contain low doses of hormones can help. Consult your doctor to help determine the right pill for you.
Some people experience nausea when first starting birth control pills. This mild side effect often resolves within a few days.
Nausea is a result of the additional estrogen, which can irritate the stomach. Pills that contain a high dose of estrogen are more likely to cause nausea than those that have a lower dose.
Taking the pill with food or taking it before bedtime may help. Even taking an antacid about 30 minutes before taking the pill may help keep your stomach calm. Another important thing is to take it regularly at about the same time every day.
If nausea persists and affects your appetite and weight, make an appointment to see your doctor.
3. Breast Tenderness
Birth control pills may also cause breast tenderness or enlargement. This is a mild side effect that tends to improve a few weeks after starting the pill. This again happens due to sudden hormonal changes from the pill.
This problem is more common in women who use progestin-only pills than those who use combined oral contraceptives that contain both progestin and estrogen.
Try to reduce your intake of coffee and salt to notice improvement. Also, wear a supportive bra to reduce discomfort.
Make sure to consult your doctor if you notice a lump in the breast or experience persistent breast pain or tenderness.
4. Breakthrough Bleeding
Women using the pill may experience vaginal bleeding or spotting between periods. This is known as breakthrough bleeding and often occurs within the first three months of starting to take the pill.
This common side effect is mostly associated with low-dose birth control pills. The change in hormone levels makes the endometrial lining thinner and more fragile, and more susceptible to wear, tear and falling out.
According to a 2006 report published in the Journal of Family Practice, these four factors contribute to breakthrough bleeding:
- Physiologic effects of oral contraceptives on the endometrium
- Oral contraceptive-related parameters (dose, formulation and regimen)
- Patient behavior (compliance, using concomitant medications and smoking)
- Benign or malignant pathology.
If you experience five or more days of bleeding while on the pill, contact your doctor for advice.
5. Weight Gain
Gaining a few pounds in the weeks and months after starting to take the pill is a common complaint. This is usually temporary and is often due to water retention rather than actual weight gain.
Most often, the oral contraceptive that has a high dose of estrogen causes this side effect. A high estrogen level can affect appetite and promote water retention. It can even lead to fat deposits in the thighs, hips and breasts.
If you are worried about weight gain, opt for a pill that has less estrogen. Also, keep a close eye on your diet and do not forget to make exercise a part of your daily routine.
6. Yeast Infections
A vaginal yeast infection that causes itching, burning, soreness or irritation in sensitive areas like the vagina and vulva is another uncomfortable side effect of birth control pills.
The pill changes the balance of hormones in the body, especially estrogen and progesterone. A higher estrogen level can cause yeast infections.
According to a University of Michigan School of Public Health study published in 2006, the risk for a yeast infection was doubled by use of oral contraceptives and tripled by spermicides.
In fact, the risk is even higher among women who have poorly controlled diabetes, a diet high in sugar or alcohol, or a weakened immune system.
Some women may even experience changes in vaginal discharge when taking the pill. Hormonal changes in the body can lead to an increase or decrease in vaginal lubrication.
7. Mood Changes
Mood swings as well as symptoms of depression are another side effect that some women may experience during pill use.
This occurs because the synthetic hormones can affect the balance of certain neurotransmitters, leading to mood swings and changes in emotional state.
This side effect is common in women with a history of a mood-related disorder.
A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reports that use of an oral contraceptive pill is most likely to deteriorate premenstrual mood in women with a history of depression and to improve in women with early-onset premenstrual mood disturbance or dysmenorrhea.
Another study published in Contraception in 2012 further confirms that young women with adverse psychological symptoms are at risk for perceived oral contraceptive side effects and discontinuation.
If you have a history of depression, talk about it with your doctor before starting the pill. A non-hormonal birth control method may be a better option.
8. Visual Changes
Though eye problems are not a common side effect of birth control pills, women who wear contact lenses and take the pill may experience visual changes.
Fluid retention resulting from hormonal changes in the body may cause the cornea to swell. This may affect the shape of the cornea, leading to an ill-fitting lens. Contact your ophthalmologist if you experience this problem after starting oral birth control pills.
In addition, long-term use of oral contraceptives may be linked to glaucoma, a condition that causes damage to your eye’s optic nerve and gets worse over time.
A 2016 study published in the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests that oral contraceptive use for three or more years may be associated with increased risk of self-reported glaucoma or ocular hypertension.
9. Blood Clots
Blood clots are a less common but serious side effect of oral contraceptives.
According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the risk of blood clots among women who are not pregnant and not using combination oral contraceptives is 1–5 per 10,000 woman annually as compared with a risk of approximately 3–9 per 10,000 woman annually among women using oral contraceptives.
Women who smoke, are overweight, are over 35 or have recently given birth are considered at higher risk. Use of combined oral contraceptives can increase your risk of blood clots even more.
A study published in the BMJ in 2015 reports that current exposure to any combined oral contraceptive was associated with an increased risk of venous thromboembolism, with the exception of norgestimate.
Before trying newer versions of birth control pills, consult your gynecologist about the possible side effects.
Also, consult your doctor if you experience breathing problems, chest pain or swelling in the legs, which could signal a clot in the heart or lungs.
10. Decreased Libido
In some people, birth control pills can even have a negative effect on their sex life. The hormones in birth control pills can be a factor behind this.
Oral contraceptives halt the production of testosterone, which in turn can have an effect on your sexual life. It can lead to reduced interest in intercourse, decreased ability to have orgasms and increased pain during the act.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that oral contraceptives are associated with increased pain during intercourse, decreased libido and spontaneous arousability, and diminished frequency of intercourse and orgasm.
If the changes persist beyond three or four months, consult your doctor.
- There are many different types of oral contraceptive pills available in the market. Consult your doctor to choose the right one.
- It is important to take the pills every day at the same time.
- These pills do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- Oral contraceptives may interfere with other medications you are taking.
- These pills are not suitable for those who smoke or have a blood-clotting disorder.
- It’s best to stop taking birth control pills immediately if you suspect you’re pregnant.