Unwelcome Mat for Sperm
Not a Good Mix
Hair, More or Less
Egg Stop Sign
The Migraine Connection
Heart Attack and Stroke Risk
Appetite and Weight Fluctuations
Acne, for Better or Worse
Effects of Birth Control on the Body
Hormone-based contraceptives are available in many forms, including pill form (oral contraceptives), as a patch that is placed on the skin, implantable preparations, and others. They each have about the same benefits and risks. To be effective, hormonal birth control use must be consistent. Skipping a day increases the chances of pregnancy.
Birth control pills and patches are dispensed only with a prescription. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, with typical use, about 8 percent of women will become pregnant in their first year of taking the pill. If the pill is used perfectly (defined as the pill being taken every single day at the same time), the rate falls to only 1 percent. That potentially makes the pill a very reliable method of birth control for very diligent women.
Neither the pill nor the patch protect against sexually transmitted diseases. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you’re a healthy non-smoker, it’s unlikely you’ll have serious side effects from oral contraceptives.
Ovaries naturally produce the female hormones estrogen and progestin. One or both of these hormones can also be synthetically made and used in contraceptives.
Higher than normal levels of estrogen and progestin stop the ovary from releasing an egg. Without an egg, the sperm have nothing to fertilize. The progestin also changes the cervical mucus, making it thick and sticky. That makes it harder for sperm to find its way into the uterus.
When using hormonal contraceptives, some women experience lighter and shorter periods and an easing of menstrual cramps and premenstrual symptoms. Use of hormone-based contraceptives decreases the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer, and the longer that a woman takes hormonal contraception, the more substantial these decreases become. These therapies may also offer some protection from noncancerous breast or ovarian growths. However, controversy remains regarding the possibility that hormonal contraceptives may somewhat increase the risk of breast cancer.
When you stop taking hormone-based birth control, your menstrual period will likely go back to normal within a few months. However, some of the cancer prevention benefits accrued from years of medication use may persist over the long term.
Side effects of oral and patch contraceptives include loss of menstruation (amenorrhea) or extra bleeding. Some bleeding or spotting between periods can occur. Some women experience vaginal irritation, breast tenderness, or breast enlargement. The hormones may also affect your sex drive.
Serious but uncommon side effects include heavy bleeding or bleeding that goes on for more than a week. Hormonal birth control may slightly raise the risk of cervical cancer, although researchers are unsure if this is due to the medication itself or if it is simply reflective of the increased risk of HPV exposure. HPV exposure is known to increase the risk of cervical cancer in sexually active women who are actively trying to prevent pregnancy.
Cardiovascular and Central Nervous Systems
For some women, birth control pills and patches can increase blood pressure. Those extra hormones can also make it a little more likely that you’ll form a blood clot. That risk is substantially higher if you’re a smoker or are over age 35. The risk of blood clots is also greater if you have high blood pressure, preexisting heart disease, or diabetes.
These side effects are uncommon in most women but are potentially very serious. That’s why hormonal birth control methods require a prescription and routine monitoring. There’s an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, particularly in smokers and women over age 35. Seek medical attention if you feel chest pain, cough up blood, or feel faint. Severe headache, difficulty speaking, or weakness/numbness in a limb could be signs of stroke.
Estrogen may aggravate migraines, if you already suffer from them. Some women experience mood changes and depression when taking these contraceptives.
Some women experience changes to their appetite and weight while taking hormonal contraception. Other side effects include nausea and bloating.
There’s an increased risk of benign liver tumors or liver cancer. If you have a history of gallstones, these contraceptives may lead to faster formation of stones. See your doctor if you have severe pain, vomiting, or yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice). Dark urine or light-colored stool can also be a sign of serious side effects.
Integumentary System (Skin, Hair, Nails)
For many women, this method of birth control can improve acne. Others may experience breakouts of acne or notice no change at all. It may also cause brown pigmentation of the skin.
Sometimes, these hormones cause unusual hair growth. However, oral contraceptives are also the main treatment for hirsutism, a condition that causes coarse, dark hair to grow on the face, back, and abdomen.