Here’s What You Need to Know About the Side Effects of Birth Control
By Kara Wahlgren | Originally Published December 1 on Bustle | Featuring Dr. Sherry Ross
If you’re thinking about using birth control for any reason, you’ve probably Googled — and then totally freaked out about — the possible side effects. And we get it — some of the side effects sound pretty scary. (Um…stroke?! WTF!)
But does that mean you should totally abandon ship? Well, no — there are still plenty of benefits to using birth control. For starters, it’s pretty good at, you know, preventing pregnancy. And even if you’re nowhere near ready to think about that, your doc might recommend hormonal birth control for other reasons, like getting irregular periods on track or managing PMS symptoms.
Still, it’s important to know what to expect before you start a hormonal birth control method like the pill, the ring, or the patch. Here are a few key facts.
Not all of the “side effects” from birth control are bad.
Birth control prevents pregnancy by tweaking your hormone levels — and since your hormones control so much of what your body does, it makes sense that birth control can have a few unexpected side effects.
And some of those side effects are actually helpful — hormonal birth control may help control acne, regulate your menstrual cycle, ease cramps, and manage the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis. If you get migraines around your period every month, it might help with those, too. And if your period straight-up sucks, you can use birth control to skip it altogether.
“The pros of skipping your period include a reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer,” says Gerardo Bustillo, MD, an OB/GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley. And, he adds, you’ll save money on everything from tampons to pain meds to doctor visits. (Okay, so that’s not technically a “side effect” — but it’s still a plus!)
Expect a few annoying-but-temporary side effects at the beginning.
Of course, messing with your hormones can have its downsides. You might have an adjustment period where hormonal BC makes your hormones kinda wonky. “The most common side effects include irregular bleeding, nausea, breast tenderness, bloating, emotional changes, depression, and headaches,” says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.
So, yeah — that’s basically the opposite of all the good stuff that can happen. And you can’t really predict how your body will react. The good news? Dr. Ross says these side effects are usually temporary.
Finding the right BC can take some trial and error.
Okay, now for the bad news — sometimes those side effects aren’t temporary.
Hormonal birth control isn’t one-size-fits-all, which means the pill your bestie swears by might be a nightmare for you. That’s because there are two key hormones at play in hormonal birth control — estrogen and progesterone. And, Dr. Ross says, “Some women are more sensitive to one or both of these hormones, which can exacerbate side effects.”
So if your side effects haven’t let up after 2-3 cycles, let your doctor know so she can help you find a method that works better for you. For example, Dr. Ross says, if the pill is giving you tummy troubles, you might have better luck with the vaginal ring, since it’s not taken orally.
Don’t totally rule out an IUD.
If the pill, ring, or patch just isn’t working for you, you may want to consider an IUD instead. “For those who have all the disruptive side effects associated with the pill, the IUD is a safe, effective, and long-term contraception alternative,” Dr. Ross says. There are two types of IUD — with hormones, or without — but side effects for both are pretty rare, other than some cramping after it’s inserted and occasional spotting between periods.
Some side effects can be scary.
Hormonal birth control can increase the risk of blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. But here’s the thing — the odds of that happening are really low. And Planned Parenthood points out that you’re more likely to experience serious health problems from a pregnancy than from taking birth control.
If you’re not comfortable with the risk, talk to your doctor.
No method is 100% risk-free.
Keep in mind you can experience side effects with pretty much any birth control method. You may have an allergic reaction to latex condoms or certain types of spermicide, and using a diaphragm may boost your risk for yeast infections or bacterial infections. Your best bet is to talk to your doctor so she can ease your fears and help you decide which birth control method is best for you.