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.
- intrauterine devices (IUDs): There are IUDs 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 10years, 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
Each type has similar benefits and risks, although everyone responds differently to the hormones. 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.
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, colorectal, and ovarian cancer.
Women who take or have taken oral contraceptives reduce their risk of endometrial cancer by
The risk is reduced the longer oral contraceptives were taken and the protection continues even years after a woman stops taking oral contraceptives.
The risk of colorectal cancer is reduced by
However, the risk of breast and cervical cancer may increase in women who take the oral contraceptive pill.
While birth control has many benefits, it can also cause side effects. Spotting between periods, also referred to as breakthrough bleeding, is common in those on hormonal birth control.
Spotting is more common with ultra-low-dose and low-dose forms of hormonal birth control like hormonal IUDs, the implant, and birth control pills.
Birth control may also cause other side effects. Reproductive side effects when your body is adjusting to oral, inserted, and patch contraceptives include:
- loss of menstruation (amenorrhea) or extra bleeding
- vaginal irritation
- breast tenderness
- breast enlargement
- weight changes
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 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 have:
- chest pain
- trouble breathing
- a sudden bad headache
- sudden pain in the back or jaw accompanied by nausea, trouble with breathing, or sweating
Some women may 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.
Mood-related side effects may be more common in women who have previously experienced depressive episodes.
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.
Estrogen may aggravate migraine attacks, if you already experience them.
For some women, taking oral contraceptives can lead to an improvement in migraine symptoms.
But for others, taking oral contraceptives may increase the risk of:
- cardiovascular diseases
- deep vein thrombosis
- blood clots
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.
Research suggests the pill, patch, ring, and IUD are unlikely to cause weight changes.
The implant and the birth control shot may cause some people to gain weight.
Some women taking hormonal contraceptives may experience side effects including nausea and bloating. These tend to ease up after a couple of weeks as your body gets used to the extra hormones.
Taking the pill with food may help with nausea. Switching to a pill with less estrogen may also help.
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, birth control can improve acne.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, the oral contraceptive pill is an effective treatment for:
- acne nodules and cysts
On the other hand, others may experience breakouts of acne or notice no change at all. 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.