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What Are the Side Effects of Birth Control Pills?

Dr. Nancy Shannon

Medically reviewed by Dr. Nancy Shannon, MD, PhD on January 13, 2020

Because of the way birth control pills work, their impacts on a woman’s body can extend well beyond the reproductive system. For most women, side effects from birth control pills are mild and fade within the first two to three months. All women, however, are unique, so the impacts of birth control on the body vary greatly from person to person.

While it’s rarely easy to know in advance how your body will react to birth control pills, women of a certain age or who engage in certain behaviors might be at particularly high risk for adverse side effects. If you want to know how birth control pills might affect you, contact our team of medical experts for advice.

Why Birth Control Pills Cause Side Effects

Birth control pills deliver a dose of hormones to alter your body’s natural hormone levels and prevent ovulation, greatly reducing the risk of pregnancy. Most birth control pills contain estrogen or progestin, or a combination of the two. Estrogen and progestin are hormones that regulate bodily functions, and an increase in the levels of either can have noticeable effects on a woman’s body. 

Fluctuations in hormone levels might cause some side effects early on, but as your body adjusts to the higher hormonal intake side effects tend to subside.

Common Side Effects of Combination Birth Control Pills

Combination birth control pills contain both estrogen and progestin. Combination pills are the most popular form of oral birth control, and most women experience few or no noticeable side effects while taking them.

Because combination pills contain estrogen, they slightly increase the risk of blood clots for some women. Women who smoke, particularly those over the age of 35, are advised not to use any birth control method that contains estrogen. 

The most common side effects of combination birth control pills include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes
  • Breast tenderness
  • Period changes, including stopped or heavier periods
  • Slightly heightened migraine pain
  • Irregular bleeding and spotting between periods
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Vaginal discharge (non-odorous)
  • Weight gain (no more than 5 pounds)

Common Side Effects of Minipills

Minipills, or birth control pills that do not contain estrogen, are similar to combination pills, but minipills contain lower doses of progestin and are less reliable at preventing ovulation. Women concerned about increasing their intake of estrogen are often advised to use the minipill as contraception, as are women who are breastfeeding. 

The most common side effects of the minipill include:

  • Period changes, ranging from periods stopping to heavier bleeding
  • Irregular bleeding and spotting between periods
  • More intense cramping
  • Slight increase in acne

The minipill is less effective than combination pills, with about 13% of women who use it becoming pregnant every year. For women who do get pregnant on the minipill, there’s an increased chance of an ectopic pregnancy occurring. Despite this, research doesn’t show that fetuses conceived while on the minipill have higher chances of birth defects.

Unexpected/Adverse Effects of Birth Control Pills

Side effects of birth control pills tend to be mild and brief, but some women might experience more severe complications. 

Rare side effects of birth control pills include:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Hypertension
  • Blood clots

If you experience unexpected/adverse side effects of birth control pills, tell your local healthcare provider or send us a message and a member of our medical team (Registered Nurse or a provider) will get back to you.

Alternative to the Pill

While all birth control methods can have different side effects for different women, hormonal birth control — the pill, shot, ring, or patch — will generally affect the body in similar ways, given their similar methods of preventing pregnancy. 

If you’re hoping to avoid some of these side effects entirely, consider non-hormonal birth control options such as diaphragms, copper IUDs, or condoms. 

If you continue to experience these side effects past the adjustment window (2-3 months for combination birth control and 4-6 months for progestin-only pills), or if you experience any unexpected/adverse side effects at anytime, please send us a message and a member of our medical team (Registered Nurse or a provider), will get back to you.

If you’re trying to decide what type of birth control is right for you, contact a member of our medical team here at Nurx for additional information.

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