If you aren’t ready to (or don’t want to) conceive, there are many options for birth control. Many women may also choose to use hormonal contraception (birth control that contains estrogen and/or progesterone) to control menstrual cycles, decrease painful premenstrual symptoms, or improve acne. Contraception—especially the kind that relies on hormones—offers plenty of benefits for many women, but it has some side effects, too.
Overall, most women use hormonal birth control (like pills, intrauterine devices, implants, etc.) without any problems—even for many years. But, a woman’s overall risk depends on her age, medical history, and personal risk factors like smoking status and weight. Read on to find out what you need to know about the long-term use of birth control and how to understand your risks.
Birth control and cancer
There is some evidence to suggest that women who use hormonal birth control may be at increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast cancer, cervical cancer, and liver cancer. However, the risk should go back to normal once a woman stops using birth control. Another large study actually reported that the risks of both ovarian and endometrial cancer decreased while women were using hormonal contraception. The cancer risk may stay low for up to 15 years after you stop taking birth control, according to some evidence.
The link between cancer and birth control is not well understood: it may have something to do with the fact that hormonal contraception decreases the number of times a woman ovulates in her lifetime, which decreases her exposure to naturally occurring hormones. If you or anyone in your family has ever had cancer, discuss your risks with your doctor before starting birth control.
Birth control and blood clots
Birth control that contains estrogen can increase a woman’s risk of developing a blood clot. Blood clots can be dangerous because they can lead to heart attacks and strokes. The risk is especially worrisome for women over the age of 35 years and for those with a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease. Women who smoke are also at an increased risk of blood clots. Smokers, as well as women with a history of blood clots or cardiovascular disease, should consider birth control that does not contain estrogen, or they may choose hormone-free birth control methods.
Birth control and migraines
The estrogen in birth control pills may make migraines worse. If you have a history of migraine or even frequent and/or severe headaches, hormonal contraception may worsen your symptoms. However, some women actually find that birth control helps lessen their migraine symptoms and severity.
Birth control and nutrition
Long-term use of hormonal contraception can reduce levels of vitamin C and several B vitamins, as well as many minerals. These changes can affect a woman’s mood, cause fatigue, and increase headaches. Eating nutrient-rich foods and taking a multivitamin while using birth control may help to decrease these risks.
Birth control and inflammation
Long-term use of hormonal birth control can increase the risk of inflammation all over your body—inside and out. This inflammation can impact your heart health, your risk for arthritis, and the chance of developing other inflammation-related conditions.
In addition to increasing inflammation, the hormones in birth control change the bacteria that normally live in your gastrointestinal tract, which changes the way it works and increases inflammation in your gut. These changes increase the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease. Tell your doctor if you notice a loss of appetite, joint pain, or red bumps on your skin while using birth control.
Birth control and gallstones
Gallstones are deposits of digestive substances that form in your gallbladder. They can cause symptoms of pain, indigestion, and nausea. Estrogen and progesterone can increase the risk of gallstones, and women who use hormonal birth control and are more likely to develop gallstones. Gallstones are not life threatening, but they can negatively impact your quality of life and surgery may be required to remove the gallbladder.
What to look for when you are taking birth control
Seek medical help if you notice any of the following symptoms while you are using birth control:
- Sudden back or jaw pain along with nausea, sweating, or difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Achy or sore legs
- Trouble breathing
- Severe stomach pain
- Sudden, severe headache or headaches that are different or worse than normal
- Seeing flashing or zigzag lines (auras)
- Yellowing of your skin or eyes
For most women, most birth control options are safe and offer more benefits that risks. Women should always discuss their individual needs, preferences, and future plans for conception with their doctors and consider short- and long-term effects of the method they choose.
Most women can safely use hormonal birth control until menopause, as long as they are generally healthy with no major risk factors or significant medical history. If you are taking hormonal birth control, and plan on taking it for a long time, make sure you have regular check-ups with your gynecologist and discuss any issues or concerns you are having related to your birth control.