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What is Hormonal Birth Control?

Susan Vachon

Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on October 26, 2020

Hormonal birth control is exactly what it sounds like: a method for preventing unwanted pregnancies that works by adjusting your body’s levels of naturally-occurring hormones. These changes in hormonal concentrations have a number of different impacts on your body, all of which work together in order to minimize the possibility of conception.

Learning about hormonal birth control is the first step towards finding out whether or not it’s right for you. Some things you may want to know include:

How does hormonal birth control work?

Hormonal birth control works by increasing your body’s concentration of naturally occurring sex hormones: either estrogen, progestin, or both in combination. This prevents ovulation from occurring, meaning that an egg is never actually released from the ovary — rendering fertilization impossible.

In addition, the added hormones can help thicken the cervical mucus, making it more difficult for sperm to penetrate the cervix. Hormonal contraceptives also thin the lining of the uterine wall, which decreases the possibility of a fertilized egg implanting there. 

What kinds of hormonal birth control are available?

Women have a number of different hormone-based birth control options to choose from, including:

  • The pill: the birth control pill is the most popular form of birth control, and for good reason: it’s relatively inexpensive, easy to take, and there are hundreds of various brands available. There are two main types of birth control pill: the combination pill, which contains both estrogen and progestin, and the minipill, which contains progestin alone.
  • The patch: like birth control pills, the birth control patch contains both estrogen and progestin, absorbed by your body from a small adhesive patch on the skin.
  • The shot: the Depo-SubQ Provera 104 shot contains progestin alone and is injected once every 12 weeks, meaning that it requires less upkeep than the pill or the patch.
  • The ring: birth control rings are inserted directly into the vagina, where they release regular doses of estrogen and progestin.
  • The implant: the implant is placed surgically underneath the skin of a woman’s arm, where it releases small doses of progestin. Most implants are effective for several years at a time.
  • IUD: there are two types of IUDs available: those containing progestins and the copper IUD, which does not contain hormones. Both types, similar to the implant, continue to prevent unwanted pregnancy for several years before requiring replacement. Unlike the implant, it is inserted into a woman’s vagina.
  • Emergency contraception: emergency contraception contains higher levels of hormones than long-term birth control, designed to immediately prevent or delay ovulation after sex. There are two types of emergency contraception: Plan B, which is designed to be used up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, and Ella, which is designed to be used up to 5 days after unprotected sex.

What are the benefits of hormonal birth control?

In addition to guarding against unwanted pregnancy, hormonal birth control can also have a number of other benefits, such as:

  • Menstrual regulation: because birth control balances out the body’s hormonal levels, most women will find that it regulates their menstrual cycle as well, reducing period bleeding and PMS along the way.
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome symptoms: over 10% of adult women suffer from PCOS, and taking hormonal birth control can help dampen some of the symptoms.
  • Less hormonal acne: imbalanced hormones are one of the leading causes of acne in women, meaning that birth control will help clear up the skin of many.
  • Decreased risk of uterine cancer: women who regularly use hormonal birth control are 50% less likely to develop uterine cancer in their lifetimes.
  • Migraine activity reduction: the relationship between migraines and birth control is complex and under-studied, but many women will experience a reduction in migraine activity as a result of hormone regulation.

What are the side effects of hormonal birth control?

Every woman will have a different experience with every method of birth control, but there are still a few common side effects of hormonal birth control to be aware of, like:

  • Mood alterations
  • Spotting between periods
  • Missed periods
  • Nausea
  • Breast tenderness
  • Headaches

The side effects of hormonal birth control are rarely serious and usually dissipate after several months of continuous usage. Just because you experience one or more of these side effects doesn’t necessarily mean that hormonal birth control isn’t for you. Keep in mind that it takes about three months to adjust to the combination pill and about three to six months to adjust to the minipill. If you still are experiencing side effects after the adjustment period, you might simply need to adjust the method or brand.

Women should be aware that increased levels of estrogen in the body can slightly elevate the possibility of blood clots. While this should not be of concern for most women, those over the age of 35 who smoke are advised not to take any estrogen-containing forms of birth control.

How effective is hormonal birth control?

While each method is slightly different, hormonal birth control is, in general, over 99% effective when taken exactly as prescribed. Factoring in human error such as the occasional missed dose, the real efficacy rate drops to around 92%, meaning that 92 out of every 100 women who use hormonal contraception will become pregnant each year. 

If you’re interested in learning more about hormonal birth control, get started by answering a few questions to help figure out which methods will be right for you. 

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