For over 60 years, people have relied on many varying methods of birth control as a form of contraception and to regulate menstruation.
There are many different birth control methods, including:
- Abstinence – Refraining from vaginal intercourse
- Barrier methods – Diaphragms, cervical cap and shield, spermicides, or condoms
- Hormonal methods – The birth control pill, patch, shot, and vaginal ring
- Implants – Intrauterine devices (IUDs)
- Permanent birth control methods – Tubal implants or ligation (sterilization)
The most common birth control method is oral contraception, also known as the birth control pill.
For the pill to be most effective, you need to take it consistently, at the same time every day.
The benefits of birth control pills go beyond just their use as a method of contraception.
The pill can lighten menstruation and lessen menstrual cramps, help manage premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and make periods shorter and lighter.
But is birth control a safe option? And what side effects, both short- and long-term should be expected?
Is Birth Control Safe?
Using hormonal birth control methods like the pill is generally a safe method of contraception.
You may even be surprised to learn that birth control is safer for the body than going through pregnancy and childbirth.
Birth control pills today even contain some health benefits, including a lower risk of ovarian, uterine, and colon cancer.
However, for more effectiveness, you have to use your birth control method as prescribed and directed by your healthcare professional.
The pill should be taken daily, the patch must be changed weekly, and the vaginal ring should be switched out monthly.
If you’re considering starting birth control or changing your birth control method, it’s important you consult your doctor.
They’ll prescribe the best birth control option for you based on your medical history.
Potential Risks of Birth Control
Almost 65% of people with female genitalia between the ages of 15 and 49 in the United States are currently using contraception in one form or another.
While birth control is safe for most, it can present potential health risks such as blood clots.
The risk is low, but some birth control methods (like the pill or implant) contain hormones, such as estrogen and progestin, which can make your blood clot more easily.
However, it’s estimated that only 1 in 3,000 people with vaginas will experience a blood clot from one year of birth control.
The good news is blood clots are treatable if caught early on.
Also, if you are on birth control pills, see your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Swelling, tenderness, pain, or redness of the skin on your arms, stomach, or legs
- Irregular or quick heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Low blood pressure, fatigue, or feeling lightheaded
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Coughing up blood
Oral contraceptives may also increase your risk of heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, or other cardiovascular diseases.
Possible Side Effects and Complications
Side effects and complications from using birth control are rare and typically mild.
Possible side effects from using oral contraceptives may include the following:
Relying on hormonal birth control methods such as the pill, ring, or patch may result in headaches or migraines from the fluctuations in hormone levels.
You can safely take over-the-counter pain relief medicine (like ibuprofen or naproxen) in the right dosage to help treat headaches.
Seek medical attention if your headaches worsen over time or if you experience aura.
Hormones in some birth control methods like the pill, ring, or patch can irritate the stomach lining and cause nausea.
These symptoms should only last the first three to four months as your body gets used to the new hormones.
To reduce symptoms of nausea, try taking your birth control pill with food, or on a full stomach.
Consult your doctor if you experience any sharp pain in your stomach or abdomen while taking birth control pills.
Sore Breasts or Breast Tenderness
Breast tenderness is a normal symptom of menstruation but taking birth control can make this pain feel worse.
If you’re taking hormonal birth control, you may also notice your breasts swelling for the first few months as your body adjusts.
Changes in Your Periods
Taking the pill or using the patch, ring, shot, or IUD may result in period changes when starting your chosen birth control method.
You may also notice your menstrual cycle is longer, shorter, heavier, or lighter. Seek medical attention if you experience severe pain during your period.
Spotting Between Periods
Within the first few months of using birth control, spotting between periods is a normal side effect of birth control.
See your doctor if you experience any bleeding after you’ve been on the same birth control method for longer than three months, if you have heavy bleeding (heavier than a typical menstrual period), or if there’s bleeding after sexual intercourse.
Mood Swings, Depression, and Anxiety
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Some birth control methods like diaphragms, spermicide, and cervical caps, have been linked to an increased risk of UTIs.
This is because these types of contraceptives can alter the natural balance of good bacteria in the vagina.
When the balance of good bacteria is altered, it becomes easier for bad bacteria to enter the urinary tract.
UTIs can be treated with an antibiotic and it should take about a week for symptoms to fully resolve.
If you’re experiencing frequent UTIs, you may also consider changing your birth control method.
Who Shouldn’t Take Birth Control
While birth control is a safe method of contraception for most, don’t take birth control pills if you:
- Are breastfeeding or within four weeks of childbirth
- Are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant
- Are a smoker over the age of 35 years old
- Currently have a blood clot or hypercoagulation disorder (increased blood clotting disorder) or have a history of blood clots
- Have high blood pressure or diabetes
- Have certain forms of lupus
- Have coronary artery disease
- Have a history of stroke or heart attack
- Have uncontrolled diabetes
- Have liver disease
- Have breast, cervical, ovarian, endometrial, or uterine cancer
- Have kidney disease
- Experience any unexplained vaginal bleeding
If you fall into any of the above categories, talk to your doctor about potential birth control alternatives such as condoms.
Long Term Effects of Birth Control
Depending on your age, risk factors, and medical history, you may experience long-term effects of prolonged birth control use.
If you’re planning on using birth control as a long-term form of contraception, schedule regular check-ins with your doctor or gynecologist to make sure you’re not having any adverse reactions.
While the hormones in oral birth control methods like the pill may decrease your risk of ovarian or uterine cancer, taking an oral form of birth control for prolonged periods increases the risk of breast and cervical cancer.
After 10 years or more of not taking the pill, the risk is low.
There’s also a greater risk of developing gallbladder disease and gallstones when using birth control pills for long periods.
Long-term use also increases your risk of blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks.
Check with your doctor to see which form of birth control will be best for you long-term.
When to See a Medical Provider
Always consult a medical professional before starting birth control.
You may experience common side effects like weight gain, mood swings, or breast tenderness when starting a new birth control.
Should any of your symptoms continue beyond three months of using birth control, an alternative method may be necessary.
See your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following:
- Chest pain
- Soreness or swelling in your legs
- Difficulty breathing
- Sharp pains in your stomach
- Frequent and worsening headaches
- Flashing lines impeding your vision (also known as aura)
- Jaundice (yellowing of your skin or eyes)
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Current Contraceptive Status Among Women Aged 15–49: United States, 2015–2017. (2018).
Effects of Hormonal Contraceptives on Mood: A Focus on Emotion Recognition and Reactivity, Reward Processing, and Stress Response. (2019).
Oral Contraceptives and Cancer Risk. (2018).
What are the disadvantages of the pill? (n.d.).
Women’s Health. (2013).