What are the long-term side effects of birth control pills?
Birth control pills – also known as contraceptive pills – are taken by millions of women around the world. Taking “the pill” is one of the easiest ways to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, which is why it’s so popular.
Benefits of the pill include:
- There are different types suited to different needs
- It’s non-invasive and easy to take
- It’s really effective when taken correctly
- Serious side effects and risks are rare
Despite this, lots of women are concerned about the long-term effects of taking contraceptive pills. If you’ve been taking the pill for a while, read on to find out about what side effects can be associated with this type of birth control.
What types of birth control pill are there?
The main types of birth control pill are:
- Combined – contains artificial versions of oestrogen and progesterone
- Low-dose – contains both hormones, but a lower dose of oestrogen than the combined pill
- Progestogen-only or 'mini pill' – contains only artificial progesterone, and no oestrogen
- Skin patch and vaginal ring – these aren’t pills, but they contain the same hormones as the combined pill, and affect the body in a similar way
The reason there are different types of pill is because some women can’t take oestrogen, or can only take a small amount. Women who can’t have the combined pill are usually able to take the progestogen-only pill.
Remember, if you’ve tried the pill and you didn’t like it, there are other types of contraception out there! Read this guide to your contraception options to find out more.
What risks and side effects are associated with birth control pills?
Most of the time, people who talk about side effects from the pill are referring to the combined pill. This is the most common type of pill, and it’s also the type that causes the most side effects.
The main risks associated with the combined pill are:
- An increase in your blood pressure
- An increase in your risk of blood clots
- An increase in your risk of breast cancer and cervical cancer – it’s thought that 10 years after you stop the pill, your risk of these cancers will have returned to normal
The good news is that these risks are very small for the vast majority of women. If your doctor doesn’t think you’re suitable to take the combined pill, because these risks may be higher for you, they won’t prescribe it.
The low-dose pill are also associated with some health risks, but again, the risk is very low.
Is it bad to be on birth control pills for a long time?
No. Birth control pills are designed to be taken for a long time. As long as you’ve had yours prescribed by a clinician, and they aren’t causing side effects, you should be safe to keep taking them.
Just bear in mind that as you get older your body and lifestyle will change, which means your medical needs will probably change too. It’s worth noting that the combined pill, which contains oestrogen and progesterone, is not suitable for women who are:
- 35 or older and smoke, or stopped smoking less than a year ago
- Very overweight
- Taking certain medicines
If your circumstances change, your doctor might prescribe a different type of pill or an alternative form of contraception.
At what age should I stop taking birth control?
If you’re having sex that could put you at risk of an unwanted pregnancy and you’re of child-bearing age, you should be using birth control.
The pill is not going to be right for all women, but there are plenty of other options, including:
- The copper coil (IUD)
- The intrauterine system (IUS)
- The implant
- The injection
- Barrier contraception like condoms
Can birth control weaken my immune system?
There’s no established evidence to suggest that the pill can weaken your immune system.
Will the pill affect my fertility?
There’s no established evidence to suggest that using contraception affects your fertility. The exception is sterilisation.
However, your body may need some time to return to normal after you stop taking the pill. If you want to get pregnant, the NHS recommendation is that it may take three months for your periods go back to normal.
Find out more by reading this article written by one of our doctors: Getting pregnant after taking the pill.
What are the long-term side effects of emergency contraception?
Emergency contraceptive pills, or morning after pills are designed for one-off use in a situation where you haven’t used any other birth control. You can take the morning pill more than once in your menstrual cycle, but it’s a better idea to stay protected with long-term contraception like the combined pill or the IUD.
When used correctly, there are no serious risks associated with the emergency contraceptive pill. Some women find that it causes minor side effects like headaches, pain in the abdomen, and nausea or vomiting, but these are short-lived. You might also notice a difference to your next period, but after that you should be back to normal.
If you need long-term birth control, consider getting the contraceptive coil (IUD) in an emergency situation. This can be left in and used as long-term birth control afterwards. It’s also the most effective form of emergency contraception.
For more information, visit our Contraception Advice Hub.