The birth control pill, a form of hormonal contraception, is a commonly used pregnancy prevention method.
It has been around for decades and is trusted by millions of people. For the majority of women, oral contraceptives are extremely effective when taken correctly, are safe to use, and have a variety of benefits. Some women, however, experience minor side effects (and unexpected ones, like potentially bigger breasts!), while others with certain risk factors should exercise caution.
Common side effects
Like all medications, birth control pills can have certain side effects. It is common to experience spotting or bleeding between periods, headaches, nausea, sore breasts, and mood changes for the first two or three months of use. If you don’t notice relief after three months, give your provider a call. If a certain brand doesn’t agree with you, there is likely an alternative to try.
Don’t stop taking the pill without identifying a new method if you are sexually active, as you won’t be protected from getting pregnant.
Breasts and birth control
Due to the hormones in birth control pills, it is common to notice a change in breast size during the first couple months of use. Fluctuation in breast size is often due to fluid retention or temporary weight gain caused by the increase in hormones. It is also common to notice a change in breast size when taking the active pills in the pill pack as opposed to the placebo pills (typically when you get your period). This is a temporary change and should return to normal after 2-3 months. The only way to permanently alter one’s breast size is through cosmetic surgery.
Additional caution is warranted for some women
The pill can potentially increase the risk of cardiovascular problems such as blood clots, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a clot in the lung, a stroke, or heart attack. It is recommended that women who meet any of the following criteria should use additional caution when considering taking birth control pills:
- Are over the age of 35 and is an active smoker
- Have a history of high blood pressure
- Have unhealthy cholesterol levels
- Have been diagnosed with a clotting disorder
- Have a history of heart problems
- Have chronic migraines
- Have a history of breast cancer or disease of the liver or gallbladder
- Have a family history (close relative) who had a blood clot before the age of 45
It is important to reiterate that experiencing major complications with birth control use is extremely rare. However, there are some key signs to look out for that indicate the need for an immediate doctor visit:
- Abdominal or stomach pain
- Chest pain and/or shortness of breath
- Severe headaches
- Blurred or loss of vision
- Aching, swelling, or redness in the legs, thighs, and/or calves
There are alternatives to the pill
If you’d prefer a set it and forget it option, a Long Acting Reversible Contraceptive (LARC) may be the method for you. It not only protects against pregnancy but has also been shown to reduce and/or eliminate period symptoms and lower your risk of uterine cancer. LARC devices include:
- Intrauterine Device (IUD) — a small, T-shaped implant, either with or without low levels of hormones to prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg. This device is placed in the uterus by your women’s health provider and can last from 3-10 years.
- Contraceptive Implant — a thin, small rod put under the skin of your upper arm that slowly releases hormones over time to prevent sperm from meeting up with an egg, or prevent eggs from leaving your ovaries. This device is inserted by your women’s health provider and can last up to three years.
Keep in mind that birth control pills and LARC devices do not protect against STDs, so consider using a condom as well for protection during sex.
It's more than pregnancy prevention
The use of hormonal birth control can help to manage endometriosis, improve acne, alleviate menstrual migraines, help prevent cysts in a woman’s breasts and ovaries, and decrease the chance of an infection in one’s ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. Hormonal birth control methods are also known for regulating one’s menstrual cycle by decreasing the period’s flow and reducing painful cramping.
No matter which method of birth control you choose, it is important to understand how it works, how to use it, and what side effects may occur.
Share this post