Birth Control Side Effects: What You Need to Know About Contraceptives

Whether you're considering the birth control shot, birth control pills, or other birth control methods, contraceptives don't just prevent pregnancy. The hormones in birth control can also be responsible for clearing up acne or weight gain. Learn the surprising positive and negative side effects of the Pill.
The Combine Pill

Michael Kraus

Pop a birth control pill and your baby-maker isn't the only thing that's getting the treatment. That's because each of those little pills contains hormones and changes the hormones in your body, says Toni Stern, M.D., Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Coney Island Hospital.

While some are good, some less than ideal and others downright dangerous, possible side effects are just that: possible. Everybody is different and responds to each birth control pill formulation in a different way. "Oral contraceptives (OC's) have been around for 50 years. They've undergone many improvements, including decreasing the amounts of hormones put into the pills and using different forms of progesterones," says Wendy C. Wilcox, M.D. Vice Chairperson of the North Bronx Healthcare Network Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. "All that makes them safer." The drugs' concentration, type and hormonal blend also impact your body's reaction.

"Birth control can be very beneficial, and not just in terms of preventing pregnancy," Dr. Stern says. "But you must be proactive about it." Talk to your doctor about these more common (and any other) possible side effects as well as any other medications (supplements count!) you're taking. If you have any problems with your OC, your doctor can often prescribe you a different dosage or formulation. The simple switch might be all it takes to find your perfect pill and get your whole body in tiptop shape.

Birth Control & Breastfeeding

The Pill may help...

Acne
All women produce some testosterone, and while it's probably not enough to take your alto to a baritone, it can cause sebum (oil) production along with its partner in crime: breakouts. Decrease your levels of testosterone, and you often can decrease levels of acne, too, says Lisa M. Keder, M.D., Director of the General Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Ohio State University Medical Center. Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep and Yaz are the only birth control pills approved by the FDA to help reduce acne. What's the difference? They contain norgestimate, a form of skin-friendly progesterone, which can decrease levels of testosterone -- and your investment on pore strips.

Symptoms of PMS and PMDD
OC's ease hormonal swings, meaning they can ease mood swings, too, especially those associated with PMS (premenstrual syndrome), or the more severe PMDD (premenstrual dysphonic disorder), says Dr. Stern. That's because birth control pills supply your body with a constant level of estrogen and progesterone hormones. Some oral contraceptives, such as Yaz and Yasmin, can even decrease the frequency and severity of premenstrual symptoms such as a bloating, water retention, breast tenderness and cramping.

Heavy or painful periods
Oral contraceptives inhibit the growth of the endometrial lining, which sheds itself during your monthly flow. Less lining equals lighter (probably less painful) periods. More good news: Extended-cycle pills such as Seasonale, Seasonique and Lybrel can slash the number of periods you get per year -- just four with Seasonale and Seasonique, and zero with Lybrel.

Menstrual migraines
About three weeks into your monthly cycle, your estrogen levels plummet big time. That's what brings on your period -- and your headaches. Since most women experience shorter periods on the Pill, they also have shorter periods of headache-prone days. If menstrual migraines are still an issue, ask your doctor about Mircette, which has only two placebos rather than the usual seven. Or, try an extended-cycle pill such as Seasonale.

Gynecological health
OC's drastically reduce the lifetime risk of ovarian cancer -- and the longer the period of time you take them, the better. Researchers from Harvard Medical School found a 10- to 12-percent decrease in risk after one year of use, and approximately a 50-percent decrease after five years of use. If that weren?t enough to make your girlie parts tingle, OC's also contribute to lower instances of endometrial cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome and ectopic pregnancies, says Aleksandr M. Fuks, M.D., Director of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Queens Hospital Center.

The Pill may hurt...

Libido
OC's slash libido-friendly testosterone in two ways: First, they quiet the ovaries, halting their production of testosterone. Second, the liver pumps out a protein called the sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which gloms onto sex hormones (including testosterone) like bargain shoppers on Black Friday sales. But while OC's lower testosterone levels in all women, they lower libido only in some, Dr. Keder says. And even if the Pill does affect your mojo, plenty of other factors -- like anxiety about getting preggers -- affect it, too. If you have serious problems below the belt, ask your doctor about switching to a different med.

Blood clots
Chances are, you've heard this warning speed by during more than one birth control pill commercial. But before you reach for a bottle of Bayer, let's put things into perspective: Each year, 7 in 10,000 women experience blood clots. Birth control triples your chances, while pregnancy and childbirth raise your chances five- to ten-fold. As long as you don't have cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes or a pack of cigs in your purse, the increased risk shouldn't be too serious," says Dr. Keder. But if you experience any signs of a blood clot, such as chest pain or a swollen leg, immediately stop the pill and see your doctor for an evaluation.

Breakthrough bleeding
Spotting isn't fun, but don't worry -- it isn't very serious, either. Most commonly occurring with low-dose birth control pills, it's believed to be caused by hormones making the endometrial lining thinner and more fragile, and more susceptible to wear, tear and falling out. Studies have shown that the longer you take the pill, the less likely you are to experience breakthrough bleeding.

Mood
It's a mood-saver for many women, but it's a mood-killer for others. Pill users are twice as likely to be depressed as nonusers, according to research from the Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in Australia. "It's really pretty unusual," says Dr. Keder. "But any emotional side effects can generally be alleviated by using a different pill formulation." So don't suffer -- tell your doc if you have any worsening of depression symptoms.

Milk production
If you're breastfeeding, steer clear of pills that contain estrogen; they can decrease breast-milk production by up to 5 percent. Progestin-only pills like Nor-Qd or Orthomicronor don't interfere with lactation, but have to be taken at the same time every day, since they are slightly less effective than combination pills.

Faux premenstrual symptoms
Headaches, breast tenderness, water retention, mood swings, nausea... While none of these are signs of health gone awry, they can all make you pretty miserable. Women who experience these side effects usually notice that they go away after they've taken OC's for a few months. If you feel like there's no end in sight, ask your doctor about an OC with drosperinone, a progesterone with fewer antiandrogenic properties, Dr. Wilcox suggests. The switch might be all you need to start feeling like yourself again.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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