Most believe that hormonal birth control serves one purpose: to prevent pregnancy. While it’s very effective compared to other forms of birth control, the effects aren’t just limited to pregnancy prevention. In fact, they can even be used to help treat other health concerns such as menstrual relief, skin changes, and more.
However, hormonal birth control isn’t without side effects. As with all drugs, there are beneficial effects and potential risks that affect everyone differently.
Birth control pills and patches are dispensed only with a prescription. Hormone-based contraceptives are available in many forms, including:
- pills (or oral contraceptives): The key difference between brands are the amounts of estrogen and progestin in them — this is why some women switch brands if they think they’re getting too little or too much hormones, based on the symptoms experienced. The pill must be taken every day to prevent pregnancy.
- patch: The patch also contains estrogen and progestin, but is placed on the skin. Patches must be changed once a week for full effect.
- ring: Similar to the patch and pill, the ring also releases estrogen and progestin into the body. The ring is worn inside the vagina so that the vaginal lining can absorb the hormones. Rings must be replaced once a month.
- birth control shot (Depo-Provera): The shot contains only progestin, and is administered every 12 weeks at your doctor’s office. According to Options for Sexual Health, the effects of the birth control shot can last up to a year after you stop taking it.
- intrauterine devices (IUDs): There are IUD’s both with and without hormones. In ones that release hormones, they can contain progesterone. IUD’s are inserted into your uterus by your doctor and must be changed every 3 to 10 years, depending on the type.
- implant: The implant contains progestin that releases through the thin rod into your arm. It’s placed under the skin on the inside of your upper arm by your doctor. It lasts for up to three years.
Each type has similar benefits and risks, although how the body responds is up to each individual. If you’re interested in birth control, talk to your doctor about which type is most effective for you. Effectiveness is based on how consistent your birth control use is. For example, some people find it difficult to remember to take a pill every day so an implant or IUD would be a better choice. There are also nonhormonal birth control choices, which may have different side effects.
If the pill is used perfectly — defined as being taken every single day at the same time — the rate of unplanned pregnancy falls to only one percent. Skipping your pill for one day, for example, will increase your risk for pregnancy.
However, no form of hormonal birth control protects against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). You’ll still need to use condoms to prevent STDs.
Ovaries naturally produce the female hormones estrogen and progestin. Either of these hormones can 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, sperm have nothing to fertilize. The progestin also changes the cervical mucus, making it thick and sticky, which makes it harder for sperm to find its way into the uterus.
When using certain hormonal contraceptives such as the IUD Mirena, you might experience lighter and shorter periods and an easing of menstrual cramps and premenstrual symptoms. These effects are among the reasons why some women take birth control specifically for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a serious form of PMS. Some women with endometriosis also take birth control to ease painful symptoms.
Using hormone-based contraceptives can even decrease your risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer. The longer you take them, the lower your risk becomes. 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. Some of the cancer prevention benefits accrued from years of medication use may persist for several more years.
Reproductive side effects of when your body is adjusting to oral, inserted, and patch contraceptives include:
- loss of menstruation (amenorrhea) or extra bleeding
- some bleeding or spotting between periods
- vaginal irritation
- breast tenderness
- breast enlargement
- change in your sex drive
Serious but uncommon side effects include heavy bleeding or bleeding that goes on for more than a week.
Hormonal birth controls may slightly raise the risk of cervical cancer, although researchers are unsure if this is due to the medication itself or if it’s simply due to an increased risk of HPV exposure from having sex.
Cardiovascular and central nervous systems
According to the Mayo Clinic, a healthy woman who doesn’t smoke is unlikely to experience serious side effects from oral contraceptives. However, for some women, birth control pills and patches can increase their blood pressure. Those extra hormones can also put you at risk for blood clots.
- These risks are even higher if you:
- smoke or are over age 35
- have high blood pressure
- have a pre-existing heart disease
- have diabetes
Being overweight is also considered a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
These side effects are uncommon in most women but when they do occur, they’re potentially very serious. That’s why hormonal birth control methods require a prescription and routine monitoring. Seek medical attention if you feel chest pain, cough up blood, or feel faint. Severe headache, difficulty speaking, or weakness and numbness in a limb could be signs of stroke.
Estrogen may aggravate migraines, if you already experience them. Some women also experience mood changes and depression when taking contraceptives.
Since the body works to maintain a hormone balance, it’s possible that the introduction of hormones creates a disruption, causing changes in mood. But there are few studies on the mental health effects of birth control on women and their well-being. Only recently did a 2017 study look at a small sample of 340 healthy women and find that oral contraceptives significantly reduced overall well-being.
Some women experience changes to their appetite and weight while taking hormonal contraception. But there are few studies or evidence showing that birth control causes weight gain. One review of 22 studies looked at progestin-only contraceptives and found little evidence. If there was weight gain, the mean increase was less than 4.4 pounds over a 6- or 12-month period.
But hormones do help regulate your eating habits, so a change in eating pattern may affect your weight, but it’s not a direct cause of birth control. It’s also possible to experience some temporary weight gain, which may be the result of water retention. To combat weight gain, see if you’ve made any lifestyle changes after taking birth control.
Other side effects include nausea and bloating, but these tend to ease up after a couple of weeks as your body gets used to the extra hormones.
If you have a history of gallstones, taking birth control may lead to faster formation of stones. There’s also an increased risk of benign liver tumors or liver cancer.
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.
For many women, this method of birth control can improve acne. A review of 31 trials and 12, 579 women, looked at the effect of birth control and facial acne. They found that some oral contraceptives were effective in reducing acne.
On the other hand, others may experience breakouts of acne or notice no change at all. In some cases, birth control may cause light brown spots on the skin. Every woman’s body and hormone levels are different, which is why it’s difficult to predict which side effects will occur as a result of birth control.
Sometimes, hormones in birth control cause unusual hair growth. More commonly though, birth control actually helps with unwanted hair growth. Oral contraceptives are also the main treatment for hirsutism, a condition that causes coarse, dark hair to grow on the face, back, and abdomen.
Talk to your doctor if you feel that your current birth control isn’t right for you. Being open and honest about your side effects and how they make you feel is the first step to getting the right dosage and type you need.