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Comprehensive Guide to Overcoming Birth Control Side Effects

February 7, 2024

We all have different experiences with birth control methods. Some women develop birth control side effects – even leading to stopping the methods.

This post looks at seven birth control side effects and some tips or suggestions about how to deal with them.

Woman lying on her front as she recovers from birth control side effects

Bleeding Problems

First off is irregular vaginal bleeding. 

Examples are an irregular period pattern, heavy bleeding, unscheduled bleeding, or breakthrough bleeding.

Generally, anything outside of your normal flow can result in a lot of stress and inconvenience.

Let’s consider the combined methods, for instance.

Unscheduled bleeding commonly occurs with combined methods, but it will likely improve over the first 3–to 4 months of use.

If your method contains higher doses of oestrogen, you may have less likelihood of unscheduled bleeding.

Other methods that contain newer progestogens can offer better cycle control than the older ones.

What works for one woman may not work for another. So trial and error may be the best approach to finding the one that works for you.

Before switching, though, consider: other problems may cause unscheduled bleeding. Examples are sexually transmitted infections, cervical polyps or ectropion, cancer and so on.

Headaches

Many women are no strangers to headaches as part of our reproductive cycle.

Often, this happens due to hormone fluctuations, which is a feature of women’s cycle.

Headaches are a common side effect when you are using birth control. They are much more associated with the combined than progesterone-only methods.

First, let’s talk about what your different headaches while using some birth control methods can mean.

Some types of Headache

Migraines are characteristic severe, usually one-sided, disabling headaches.

You can only function once they ease. You may experience nausea and vomiting, eye changes like blurred vision, watering eyes, and other symptoms of migraines.

A significant type of migraine is (Migraine with Aura) MWA, where you have a warning sign (an ‘aura’) that a migraine attack is going to happen.

One in 3 people with migraine experience this type of headache.

The warning sign is often a symptom that affects your sight, such as blind spots or flashing lights. Auras can also happen as numbness or muscle weakness.

Auras can also happen without a headache following.

But why are we so interested in MWA?

Well, if you develop severe headaches like this after starting a birth control method, you may be at a higher risk of a stroke.

Generally, it is a relatively small but significant risk – hence, that method must be stopped.

But non-migraine headaches can also happen in the context of using a birth control method.

This type of headache may be persistent, feel like pressure behind the eyes, affect the forehead, and so on.

If it develops after you start the birth control method, it’s essential to have your blood pressure (BP) checked. Headaches are sometimes a symptom of high blood pressure.

More commonly, women experience headaches during the hormone-free period.

This is not a migraine-type method or associated with abnormal blood pressure.

So we’ve looked at three possible reasons behind developing a headache while on birth control. Now – what should you do?

How to deal with Headaches on Birth Control

For severe headaches diagnosed as MWA, the method should be stopped immediately. You should then discuss with your doctor to determine what options are more suitable.

If your blood pressure has increased since starting the method, the advice is the same.

On the other hand, if the BP is normal and the headaches are not migraine-like, they may happen during the hormone-free period.

Your option is to change the way you take the pill by using a continuous or extended regimen, reducing or removing the hormone-free period.

Learn about how these tailored birth control regimens work.

Lastly, remember that headaches can happen for different reasons, including poor hydration and stress.

Please see your doctor for any persistent, severe or recurring headaches to get the correct diagnosis and treatment.

Acne

Many women do not report Acne as a side effect while using either progesterone only or combined birth control methods.

Indeed, users of the combined methods see improvements in their acne while using the method. 

However, for a small number of women, developing acne may happen after they start a new birth control method.

With the progesterone-only method, a small percentage of women experience Acne with the pill, implant and other options.

If it’s not the pill – what else could be responsible?

Things that could lead to acne breakouts are:

  • Diet – consuming high GI foods or dairy; 
  • Certain types of make-up.
    • People with acne-prone skin should look for products that are labelled as being ‘non-comedogenic’ (should not cause blackheads or whiteheads) or non-acnegenic (should not cause Acne)
  • Changes in your skincare routine or skin care products that do not agree with you. 

So addressing these if you start to experience acne breakouts is essential, but if making the necessary changes does not help, you can speak to your HCP about swapping to an alternative method.

Mood Changes

Some women may experience negative mood changes while using some birth control methods – whether the progesterone-only or the combined method. 

However, it is important to note that other issues can affect our mood associated with our cycle (for instance, PMT (pre-menstrual tension), abnormal bleeding patterns and menstrual pain).

Some of these do get better on the combined method. This makes it difficult to quantify how much mood change is caused by the combined hormones.

Mood changes are also related to external events unrelated to your birth control, such as stress or other life events. 

When it comes to the progesterone-only methods, it has also been problematic in studies to associate any mood changes like depression with birth control methods like the minipill, implant depo and so on.

So what can be done if you do feel that the change in your mood seems to have started around the time you began birth control?

  • Consider if it is related to external issues–a busy, stressful life or other health challenges.
  • Consider your diet – persistent high-sugar and carb foods can be associated with mood fluctuations.
  • A regular exercise regime can help to boost the mood, providing both physical and mental health benefits.
  • Consider regular breaks or self-care measures, spa days, spending time with friends, and other activities outside of your regular routine that can help boost your mood.

Of course, if you are struggling despite self-help efforts, please speak to your doctor about considering a change to your birth control method.

If you are using a combined method and wish to stick with it, you may change your method to one that is still combined but with a different type of progesterone.

Something else that may be related is the association of hormone fluctuations with the traditional method.

Removing the hormone-free period by using the continuous or extended regimen may help avoid hormone fluctuations and balance the mood- especially if the mood changes happen before your periods. 

Weight Gain

Next, we come to weight gain – how do you deal with your birth control method if you think it’s contributed to significant weight gain?

Many women will identify the Depo shot injection as the most popular culprit when it comes to weight gain as a side effect of birth control.

Studies have not shown a direct link between using the shot and weight gain or other progesterone-containing birth control. This also applies to the combined birth control methods.

In studies, weight changes have ranged from 0.5 to 1.5 kg in 12 months, which varies a lot among women involved.

If you find weight gain has been your experience with your birth control method, it’s good to check on changes to your eating pattern and activity, especially if you are otherwise happy with the method.

Of course, the option you can go for is to change the method while you also look at your diet/exercise to reduce the extra weight.

Your Sex Drive

Your libido, or sex drive, is under the influence of several factors like your culture, environment, psychological factors, as well as age, health and medications.

Learn about over 15 causes of low libido in women.

Does any birth control method cause low sex drive?

The answer is mixed. Some women do experience a drop in sex drive, which develops around the use of their contraceptive method.

However, others do not – so we have no clear link between the two, given that other factors may be responsible.

How can you deal with it?

We recommend starting with simple things: a busy schedule, failure to plan for protected intimate times with your partner, or even relationship tensions that may be involved.

If these can be addressed, your experience will improve.

 If not, it’s important to speak with your health provider. We’d also think about any medical causes and medication you are taking, including the birth control method.

 Changing the method is an option if the other measures do not help.

Delay In Fertility

The hormonal methods are associated with temporary interruption to your fertility – none of them causes infertility.

 However, some, like the Depo progesterone injection, are associated with a prolonged delay in the return of fertility when you stop the method.

 Being aware of this is the best way to handle the issue. It doesn’t matter how long you have used the method.

Are you preparing to have a family in 12 months?

Then, it’s a good idea to stop the Depo shot now and switch to another method, which will allow a quick return of your fertility closer to the time you want to start trying for a baby.

The combined pill and other progesterone methods, like the minipill, implant, etc, are associated with quickly returning to your fertility.

A delay in return of fertility can be very distressing when you are trying for a baby.

Some things that will help are maintaining a healthy weight with nutritious meals and regular exercise.

Stop smoking and monitor your blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol levels.

If you are over the age of 30 and have been trying for a baby for at least 12 months with regular sexual intercourse (at least thrice /week), you should speak to your doctor.

 They can arrange tests to check your hormone function, ovulation, and check your partner, too.

Rounding Up

Many women give up on their birth control method due to one side effect or another.

As you can see, some can be addressed or treated. In other cases, you can switch to a more suitable method.

Please share your birth control side effects here, or contact a doctor for some more information if that will help.

More Reading

Editing by AskAwayHealth Team

Disclaimer

All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practising Medical Practitioners to help promote quality healthcare. 

The advice in our material does not replace a qualified healthcare practitioner’s management of your specific condition.
Please get in touch with a health practitioner
 to discuss your condition, or reach us directly here.

Our post may contain affiliate links at no cost to you. There is no obligation to use these links. Thank you for being so supportive!

Image Credits: Canva

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