Is Hormonal Birth Control Safe? Here’s What Experts Say You Should Know
Birth control is a fantastic resource to help people take control of their reproductive health, but it can also be a headache to figure out which method is best for you. It feels like the list of available options just keeps growing (which is wonderful!), but so does the collection of myths floating around about the different methods and their side effects. Is hormonal birth control safe? Does it affect your body differently than other forms of contraception? It all comes down to knowing your needs — and doing your research — to learn whether it’s the right choice for you.
The most common form of hormonal birth control is the pill, which has been used by four out of five sexually active women at some point in their lives, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, it’s super popular, and for good reason! The pill was the earliest hormonal contraceptive to become widely available in the 1960s, and it does much more than just significantly lower your risk of unintended pregnancy. According to Dr. Adeeti Gupta, board certified OB-GYN and founder of Walk In GYN Care, the pill can also be used to regulate periods, control acne, and help with hormonal disorders like PCOS. It works by using a combination of two hormones, estrogen and progestin, to stop ovulation and thicken the cervical mucus. This prevents sperm from joining with an egg to create a pregnancy.
When you account for the occasional missed day or pill taken off schedule, the pill’s effectiveness rate is around 91 percent, according to Planned Parenthood (it’s 99 percent effective if taken perfectly). And thankfully, it’s totally safe for most people, according to Dr. Kecia Gaither, board certified OB-GYN. “It’s safe to be on birth control pills for years — provided that the woman is under the care of a health provider regularly, and she herself has no risk factors,” Dr. Gaither tells Elite Daily. The exceptions to this? "If you have a genetic condition that puts you at a higher risk of getting blood clots," or "if you have migraines with aura and have an active liver disease," then you should not be on traditional birth control pills, Dr. Gaither explains.
Occasionally, you may start a contraceptive and notice it's affecting your body in a way you don't like. Dr. Gupta explains that the pill may cause irregular bleeding or slight bloating in the first few months, but this usually goes away with time. Or, it could affect your mood: "Some women can get excessively moody or depressed," Dr. Gupta says, "but you can work with your doctor to find out which one suits you the best." A medical professional can help make sure you’re on a contraceptive that meets your needs and minimizes negative effects.
So, what are other potential side effects, or risk factors, to be aware of? They include “nausea, breast tenderness, mood changes, weight gain, intermenstrual bleeding, headaches, decrease in libido, [and] change in vaginal lubrication,” Dr. Gaither explains. But before you freak out, know that these symptoms don’t happen to most people! All medications have side effects, but they wouldn’t be on the market if they were deemed unsafe for widespread use. There are also multiple types of birth control pills — some of which have lower hormone doses — which may affect your body in various ways. “As all bodies are different, hormonal birth control effects vary from woman to woman,” explains Dr. Janelle Luk, board certified OB-GYN and Medical Director at Generation Next Fertility.
Although the birth control pill is generally safe for long-term use, there have been studies that show a link between hormonal birth control and breast cancer, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. However, this increased risk appears to die down again once someone stops taking the pill. "Studies are currently ongoing for definitive answers to the relationship of birth control and such risks," Dr. Luk explains. "It is important to ask your doctor about long-term use of birth control."
In addition to the pill, other hormonal methods are available for people who choose them: the IUD (more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy), the implant (more than 99 percent effective), the shot (94 percent effective), and the patch (91 perfect effective). Each of these methods contains a different dose of hormones — some, like the Mirena IUD and the Nexplanon implant, do not contain estrogen, so they are ideal for women who can’t take the traditional combination pills because of pre-existing health issues like high blood pressure or ocular migraines.
If you’re hoping not to take hormones at all, the Paraguard IUD uses copper to stop the movement of sperm toward an egg. It’s totally hormone-free, but it’s not right for everyone, so talk to your doctor if this is something you’re interested in getting. Condoms are available at any local drugstore, and they’re still the best way to significantly lower your risk of contracting STDs or STIs — but they're only 85 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, according to Planned Parenthood. There’s also the diaphragm, the cervical cap, and the sponge for those who prefer not to use hormonal methods.
The list of contraceptive options can get overwhelming, which is why talking to a medical professional is always your best move before making a decision. “Talk to your health care provider to come to a mutually acceptable, correct decision,” Dr. Gupta suggests. “After learning more about your goals and current symptoms, your doctor can provide the proper advice.” And even if the first method you try gives you negative side effects, you can always adjust until you find the right thing. “There may be some trial and error, but we can work with it,” Dr. Gupta explains.
Dr. Luk echoes this. “It is important to ask your doctor about long-term use of birth control,” she says. Before you worry too much about the safety of any particular option, go to a professional to get your questions answered. Doing research is great, and it’s important to be informed before you make the decision to start a new medication — but ultimately, your doctor should be your go-to when choosing a new contraceptive. Once you know your options and have discussed them with a pro, you can breathe easy knowing you’re on the best method possible for you.