Many young women use birth control pills as protection from pregnancy. Not all women can use birth control pills, however. Certain medical conditions and other factors make the use of the pill less effective or risky. For example, the usage of birth control pills is not recommended for women who experience blood clots, high blood pressure, certain types of cancers, certain types of migraine headaches, or poorly controlled diabetes. Girls who have had unexplained vaginal bleeding or who suspect they may be pregnant should talk to their doctor. You should also read all you can about birth control side effects before you start using them.
What is a birth control pill?
The birth control pill, also called BCP or “the Pill”, is a daily pill that contains the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can prevent unwanted pregnancies. Hormones are chemical substances that control the functioning of organs within the body; in this case, hormones control the ovaries and the uterus.
How does birth control work?
Most birth control pills contain a combination of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. The purpose of these hormones is to prevent ovulation - the release of an egg during the woman’s monthly cycle. A woman cannot get pregnant if she does not ovulate, as there is no egg to be fertilized. The birth control pill also works by thickening the mucus around the cervix. This mucus type makes it difficult for sperm to enter the uterus and reach any eggs that might be released. The hormones in the pill can also sometimes affect the lining of the uterus, making it difficult for an egg to attach to the wall of the womb.
Most combination pills come in either a 21-day pack or a 28-day pack, where you should take one hormone pill each day at about the same time. Depending on your pack, either you will stop taking birth control pills for 7 days, or you will take a pill that contains no hormones for 7 days. Some women prefer the 28-day pack because it helps them stay in the habit of taking a pill each day.
There is also a type of combination pill which decreases the frequency of a woman’s period by supplying a hormone pill for 12 weeks, and then inactive pills for 7 days. This decreases the number of periods to one every 3 months instead of one every month as it should be. Another kind of pill that also decreases the number of monthly periods is the low-dose progesterone pill, also known as the mini-pill. This type of birth control pill differs from the others in that it only contains one type of hormone, most commonly progesterone. Some pills contain only progesterone, rather than a combination of estrogen and progesterone. It works in a similar fashion to the combination pill but it can be slightly less effective at preventing pregnancy. The mini-pill you should take every day without a break. A girl taking the mini-pill may have no period at all, or she may go several months without a period. This means she is not ovulating. Girls taking the mini-pill who are having regular periods are still ovulating. These girls are at greater risk of getting pregnant than girls whose periods have stopped. The pill works best when you take it every single day at the same time of day, regardless of whether a girl is going to have sex.
Possible side effects
The birth control pill is a safe and effective method of birth control, and most young women who take the pill have none to very few side effects. However, there are some possible side effects that some women may experience while on the pill. These are irregular menstrual bleeding, nausea, weight gain, headaches, dizziness, breast tenderness, mood changes, and blood clots. All these are rare in women under 35 who do not smoke. Some of these side effects improve over the first three months on the birth control pill. When a girl has side effects, a doctor will sometimes prescribe a different brand of the pill to prevent it.
The pill also has some side effects that most young women desire. It usually makes periods much lighter and reduces cramps, which is why doctors recommend it for women who have menstrual problems. Taking the pill often improves acne, and some doctors prescribe it for this purpose as well. Birth control pills also protect against some forms of breast disease, anemia, ovarian cysts, and uterine cancer.
Doctors pay much attention to comparing benefits and risks of birth-control pills. There are many benefits of taking the birth-control pill, not just l00% effectiveness in preventing pregnancy. Beside less menstrual flow and cramping, lower risk of infection of the uterus and ovaries, benefits also include a decreased chance of developing ovarian cysts and non-cancerous breast cysts and tumors, less ovarian cancer and uterine cancer, less rheumatoid arthritis, and an improved acne situation. About 40% of women who take birth-control pills will have side effects of one kind or another during the first three months of these pills usage. The vast majority of women have only minor, transient side effects such as light bleeding between menstrual periods, skipped periods, nausea, weight change, bloating, or an increase in vaginal infections. A spotty darkening of the skin on the face may appear, and may become permanent for some women. If a woman develops one of these minor problems, the doctor could eliminate it by changing to a different birth-control pill.
The most serious side effect associated with the birth control pill is a greater chance of blood clots, even stroke or heart attack. However, these problems occur in only a small percentage of women on the pill. Women at the highest risk of developing these problems are smokers over thirty-five. A doctor should carefully examine women with other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or vascular disease or blood cholesterol and triglyceride abnormalities before prescribing the pill, particularly in the light of an increased risk of developing blood clots, stroke, or heart attack.
Other serious side effects of the pill are worsening of migraine headaches, gall bladder disease, and increasing blood pressure. In some extremely rare cases, reports of liver tumor have been noted. Some birth-control pills may cause changes in the levels of fatty substances in the blood, but the long-term consequences of these changes are still unknown.
Regular check-ups are important for early detection of any problem such as these. However, it is important to know more about the following rare but serious side effects:
* Blood clotting is common symptom, since birth control pills can make women slightly more prone to this. A blood clot can occur in a vein or artery and can have different symptoms depending on where in the body it is localized. Clots can occur in the legs, abdomen, heart, lungs, eye, or brain (where it could manifest as a stroke). The risk of these events occurring is very low, but increases in women over 35, especially if they are smokers. The warning signs of a blood clot spell out the word ACHES:
o Abdominal pain
o Chest pain
o Eye problems
o Severe leg pain
If you develop any of the ACHES side effects while on birth control pills, you should call your doctor right away.
* High blood pressure is a consequence you could also develop due to birth control pill usage. This is why doctors check your blood pressure a few months after you begin taking pills.
* An increased risk of forming benign liver tumors is associated with pill usage. This is a very rare occurrence, but you should contact your provider if you develop upper abdominal pain.
* An increased risk of developing breast cancer is a concern associated with birth control pills. The jury is still out on this issue, although some studies suggest that there is a slightly increased risk of breast cancer in women who have used the pill. However, breast cancer has been diagnosed earlier and had a better prognosis than in women who have never used the pill. We encourage all women, especially those with a strong family history of breast cancer, to explore this risk with their health care provider.
* Cervical cancer risk is slightly increased in birth control pill users. Fortunately, routine Pap smear testing is an excellent screening tool. That is why doctors recommend this test on a yearly basis for women using the pill.
Which side effects of birth control pills are dangerous?
Women who develop serious side effects and symptoms should seek help right away. These serious symptoms may be signs of blood clots or some other serious side effect, such as sudden changes in vision, speech, breathing, or coordination, severe or sudden headache, coughing up blood, or sudden, severe, continuing pain in the abdomen. If you experience pain in the chest, groin, or legs (especially the calves), weakness, numbness, or arm pain, you should also report it to your doctor.
It is important to understand that adverse effects of oral contraceptives can be impossible to predict. Other than avoiding smoking, there are no effective means of preventing these side effects. Women should report all observed adverse effects to their physicians promptly.
Oral contraceptives might continue to affect the menstrual cycle for some time after a woman stops taking them. Women who miss periods for several months after quitting should talk to their doctor about this. Other rare side effects may occur, so anyone who has unusual symptoms while taking oral contraceptives should get in touch with their physician.