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Is There a Limit to How Long You Can Take Birth Control Pills?

Highlights

  1. As a long-term birth control method, birth control pills require consistent use. Taking months off may cause side effects.
  2. As you reach your mid-30s and beyond, smoking while on the birth control pill puts you at higher risk of side effects.
  3. Long-term use of birth control pills slightly raises your risk of developing blood clots and having a heart attack after the age of 35.

Despite the convenience and effectiveness of birth control pills, taking a pill every day might make you pause every once in a while. You wouldn’t be alone in wondering whether it’s good for your body to be taking birth control pills year after year.

For most healthy women, birth control pills are safe for long-term use. There are exceptions, of course. Not every woman has the same experience with birth control pills. If you’ve been taking birth control pills for some time and have had no side effects, it’s likely that you can continue using them for as long as you need them.

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What Are the Types of Birth Control Pills?

Birth control pills contain small doses of hormones for preventing pregnancy. There are two basic types of birth control pills.

Minipills

One type of pill only contains the hormone progestin. It’s sometimes referred to as a “minipill.” It works by thickening your cervical mucus and thinning the lining of your uterus, known as the endometrium. A thicker layer of mucus makes it harder for sperm to reach and fertilize the egg. A thinner endometrium makes it harder for a fertilized embryo to become implanted and grow during pregnancy.

Combination Pills

A more common type of birth control pill contains both progestin and estrogen. This is called a combination pill. The estrogen helps keep your ovaries from releasing an egg into your fallopian tube, which is where it can become fertilized by a sperm or to shed along with the lining of your uterus during your next period.

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The Pill as a Long-Term Birth Control Option

Birth control pills can safely be used on a long-term basis for pregnancy prevention, with a few exceptions. Progestin-only pills are appropriate for all nonsmokers but only for younger women who smoke. Combination pills are generally safe for nonsmokers of any age.

You should get regular checkups with your gynecologist and talk about how you’re tolerating your birth control pills.

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It’s also important to renew and fill your prescription before you run out. As a long-term birth control method, birth control pills require consistent use. Using them for a few months, stopping for a month or two, and then starting to use them again raises your risk of an unplanned pregnancy.

You should take your birth control pills exactly as prescribed. Missing a dose once in a while usually isn’t a problem. However, it does your raise your risk of accidental pregnancy. If you find yourself forgetting to take your pill every day, it may not be the right birth control method for you.

You should also know that birth control pills don’t protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STIs). If your sexual activity puts you at risk of an STI, use a condom along with the pill.

Side Effects of Short-Term Use

During the first few months of using birth control pills, you may have some minor bleeding between periods. This is sometimes called breakthrough bleeding. It’s more common if you’re taking progestin-only pills. It typically stops on its own, but you should report it to your doctor if it happens, along with any other side effects.

Taking birth control pills may lead to breast tenderness and nausea for some women. You may be able to reduce these side effects by taking your pill before bedtime. You should try to take your pill at the same time every day, particularly if you use a progestin-only pill.

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Side Effects of Long-Term Use

If you experience no problems during your first year of taking birth control pills, you can probably continue using them without issue for many years.

One common concern about long-term use of birth control pills is how it affects your cancer risk. According to the National Cancer Institute, using birth control pills may slightly lower your risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers. Long-term use may slightly increase your risk of breast, liver, and cervical cancers. If these cancers run in your family, be sure to tell your doctor and discuss your risks.

The long-term use of birth control pills also slightly raises your risk of developing blood clots and heart attack after the age of 35. The risk is higher if you also have high blood pressure, a history of heart disease, or diabetes. Of course, these health concerns are also made worse if you smoke.

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If you have a history of migraines, the estrogen in combination pills may make them worse. However, you may experience no changes in headache intensity. If your migraines are associated with your menstrual period, you may even find that birth control pills ease the pain.

For some women, taking birth control pills can cause changes in mood or libido. However, these types of changes are uncommon.

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Learn more: The effects of birth control on the body »

Risk Factors to Consider

Birth control pills are powerful drugs that require a prescription. Your doctor should only prescribe them if your medical history and current health suggest they’ll be safe and effective. If you’re healthy, you should be able to take birth control pills with few side effects or problems.

If you smoke or you have heart disease or other cardiovascular problems, you may not be an ideal candidate for birth control pills.

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Generally speaking, smokers can use birth control pills effectively. As you reach your mid-30s and beyond, smoking while on the birth control pill puts you at higher risk of complications. Smoking can lower the effectiveness of estrogen in combination pills. Smoking also increases your risk of heart disease, blood clots, and cancer.

Birth control pills can sometimes be slightly less effective for obese women. If you’re obese, talk to your doctor about whether pills are your best option.

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If you’ve already tried birth control pills and experienced unpleasant side effects, talk with your doctor about your experiences. Try to remember what type of pill you took previously. Chances are, a different type of pill may allow you to use birth control pills without experiencing your earlier problems.

Alternative Birth Control Options

If you’re looking for alternative long-term birth control options, you may want to consider an intrauterine device (IUD). Depending on the type of IUD you choose, you may be protected for anywhere from three to 10 years.

Most people can also use male and female condoms without problems. They also help to prevent the spread of STIs, which birth control pills don’t do.

Natural birth control options include the rhythm method, in which you carefully monitor your menstrual cycle and either avoid sex or use condoms or other barrier methods during your fertile days.

Some couples also practice the withdrawal method, in which a man pulls his penis away from your vagina before ejaculating. Both the rhythm and withdrawal methods carry a higher risk of unplanned pregnancy than birth control pills or other contraceptive methods.

Outlook

Depending on the type of birth control pill you use, you’re protected from pregnancy after seven to 10 days of starting to take it. Remember to take your pills properly and report any side effects to your doctor.

Assuming you’re healthy, long-term use of birth control pills should have no adverse impact on your health. Taking a break now and then appears to have no medical benefit.

Long-term birth control use generally doesn’t impact your ability to get pregnant and have a healthy baby once you no longer take it. Your regular menstrual cycle will probably return within a month or two after you stop taking your pills. Many women get pregnant within a few months of stopping birth control pills and have healthy, complication-free pregnancies.

Deciding Which Birth Control Is Right for You

Unless you’re trying to get pregnant or you’ve reached menopause, birth control pills are probably a good option. The right birth control choice for you is one that fits your lifestyle and health needs.

The best decision is an informed decision. It’s best to do your research and talk with your doctor. You can also talk with family members and friends if you think it’s appropriate. Another woman’s experience with birth control pills or any other form of contraceptives won’t necessarily be the same as your experience. If you have a sexual partner, talking to them about your birth control use may also be helpful.

There are many birth control options out there, and they all have risks and benefits. 

Learn more: Which birth control is right for you? »

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