nearly 60 percent of all women of reproductive age currently use a contraceptive method (see: the Pill, IUDs, implants, shots, condoms, etc.), according to a survey by the Guttmacher Institute.
Besides its obvious intent (to prevent unwanted pregnancy), the Pill actually offers lots of other benefits, like regulating your period, combating hormonal acne, alleviating painful periods, and more.
But, like all good things, there are some not-so-awesome side effects too. The trick is to find the right pill formulation with the help of your doctor and to allow about three months for your body to adjust," says ob-gyn Sherry Ross, MD, women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. But remember: "If the first pill you try doesn’t work out for you, there are always other options," says ob-gyn Heather Irobunda, MD.
Lighter periods. "Many women who use oral contraceptive pills notice that their periods become lighter on the pill," says Dr. Irobunda. "This happens because the hormones in the pills make the lining of the uterus thinner, making your periods lighter."
Vaginal dryness. Some pills containing estrogen can cause women to have a lower amount of estrogen circulating in their bodies, which can then cause dryness, says Dr. Irobunda. "The pills don't cause women to produce estrogen, it actually takes over and causes one steady amount of hormone instead of fluctuating levels of estrogen," she adds. Typically, if you're experiencing vaginal dryness, it's because you're on a pill that has a lower dose of estrogen. But if this happens to you, NBD. There are plenty of great lubes out there that you should already be using for your sexy-time fun, anyway.
Weird spotting. While this is a v common (but painfully annoying) side effect of the Pill, know that it "typically resolves within the first three months of use," says Dr. Irobunda. The reason this happens in the first place: "It's caused by the changes in hormone levels in the body while taking the pill, which then affects your uterine lining, making it more prone to spotting," she adds.
Nausea. Some women feel queasy when they start the Pill, says Dr. Ross. Though it shouldn't last more than three months after you start the pill, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, taking it with a meal can help reduce how icky you feel as your body adjusts to new levels of estrogen and progesterone. Another tip: "Taking the pill before you go to sleep can help decrease symptoms of nausea," says Dr. Irobunda.
Breast tenderness. Alas, this downside of oral contraceptives can apparently last for up to 18 months on the Pill, according to a report by the American Family Physician. Sorry.
Bloating. The ups and downs of your body's sex hormones can lead to water retention and bloating, according to a study by the American Journal of Physiology. These effects may be particularly strong for women suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal tract disorders. That said, many women feel better six months into a new pill regimen, per the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Headaches. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that approximately 10 percent of women feel headachy within a month of starting the pill. Once the body acclimates to a new oral contraceptive, most reports of headaches go away, the study authors conclude.
Reduced risk of certain cancers. A 2011 review of studies by a German medical journal examined the link between birth control and cancer risk and found that incidences of endometrial and ovarian cancers dropped by 30 to 50 percent among women without a history of HIV or HPV who took the pill.
Fewer cramps. Since the pill regulates how much estrogen and progesterone enter your body, your periods follow a more predictable schedule. Once you get adjusted to the Pill, your periods may become lighter, which can mean less painful menstrual cramping, says Dr. Ross.
Clearer skin. Because acne is largely influenced by high levels of androgens, like testosterone and androstenedione, taking a pill that contains estrogen and progesterone can help scale back the prevalence of pimples on your face, per the Journal of Drugs and Dermatology.
Increased appetite. Perhaps you recall from ever having PMS that hormones can make you super hungry. The same goes when you alter your estrogen and progesterone levels via birth control. If you experience this, talk to your doctor about your options. "Pills that only have progesterone in them are more likely to have this side effect," says Dr. Irobunda. So it may be worth switching to a pill that has both progesterone and estrogen. (BTW, "There's still no definitive proof that birth control directly causes weight gain," says Dr. Ross.")
Yeast infections and/or bacterial vaginosis. The Pill impacts hormones that can affect vaginal tissue, in some cases making it more susceptible to infection. And if getting a new 'script leads to a switch-up in how often you use tampons or your bleeding patterns, that can make you susceptible too, says Dr. Irobunda.
Mood swings and other emotional issues. This issue is complicated. While some women with a history of mood issues — depression, anxiety, even insomnia — tend to see an increase in their symptoms' severity once they go on some birth control pills, others report that going on the Pill improves their mood, according to a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine.
Blood clots. These are more likely to form in your legs or lungs if you are on a birth control pill that contains estrogen, says Dr. Irobunda. "The hormone estrogen can cause your blood to clot more easily," she confirms. This can be concerning and become life-threatening, so it's worth telling your doctor ahead of time if you have any family history (or previous history individually) regarding blood clots before starting the Pill.
Fewer complications from anemia. Studies suggest a link between oral contraceptive use and fewer incidences of anemia—a condition in which you have lower levels of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all your organs. "The Pill helps boost these iron levels because there is less blood loss during your period while on an oral contraceptive," says Dr. Irobunda. "The Pill keeps not only the red blood cell count higher, but also keeps hemoglobin and iron levels higher."
Less pain during sex. According to a study published in Elsevier, going on the Pill can increase a woman's vaginal lubrication and, as a result, make intercourse a heck of a lot less painful — especially if she experienced it as such prior to going on the Pill.
Greatly reduced chance of pregnancy. Remember that one? It's kind of why birth control was created. In case you needed a reminder.
Brown spots on your face. According to a study in the British Journal of Dermatology, oral contraceptives can increase women's risk of a skin condition called melasma, which can make your face break out in some brown-colored splotches. Research shows, however, that this is more likely to occur in women who have a family history of the skin issue. Switching from the pill to an IUD may be able to resolve this, several case studies suggest.
Lower sex drive. Some women report decreases in their libido once they begin the Pill, Ross says. But she points out that much of this may be due to birth control's other side effects like vaginal dryness, breast pain. That said, many women report that their sex drive picks back up again — or even gets stronger than pre-Pill levels — about nine months into taking the Pill, according to a study published in the journal Contraception.
Mood improvements. Yes, some women with a history of emotional issues have found the Pill worsens their symptoms. But others claim it's offered a boost to their psychological well-being. Evidence suggests the Pill can, for many women, decrease depression.
Stronger ligaments (maybe). Apparently, birth control pills are linked with lower incidences of knee injuries, according to the National Library of Medicine. The researchers who found this correlation peg it to birth control's regulation of estrogen, which — if too high — may weaken young women's ligaments.
Changes in mate preference. Studies have also found a fascinating link between the use of oral contraceptives and women's preference for certain traits in their partners. Going on birth control can, according to some evidence, make women more inclined to choose nurturing men over sexually exciting ones, while going off birth control may influence how attractive we consider our significant others — and not for the better.