The side effects of the contraceptive pill

When you start oral contraception, it is common to experience side effects, but these won’t affect everyone. The side effects of taking the pill vary from person to person, and it is important to consider the contraceptive pill side effects before choosing a method of contraception

Not only does a woman have to think about the physical side effects of the pill, but they must also consider the emotional side effects of the pill, too. 

Pills with oestrogen and progesterone are known as the combined contraceptive pill. The side effects of the combined contraceptive pill are usually temporary and go away after a few months. If the side effects don’t subside, your healthcare provider will likely try a different method of contraception

You might consider the mini pill, which only contains progestogen. Of course, there are still side effects of the mini pill, but again, these are usually short-lived. 

Whichever method of oral contraception you choose, you are likely to experience some side effects. Even the morning after pill has side effects. Bleeding while on the pill is one of the most common side effects, but don’t worry! If you are bleeding on the pill it is normally nothing to worry about. If you are concerned, always speak to your healthcare provider for advice.

When you choose to stop taking oral contraception, it is important to know that quitting the pill has side effects. Not everyone will experience the side effects of coming off the pill, but it is possible.

What is the contraceptive pill?

The contraceptive pill is a form of birth control that uses hormones to prevent pregnancy. It is a method of birth control that can be used long-term. 

The hormones in birth control keep oestrogen levels steady to prevent an egg from being released. The pill also thickens the mucus, making it harder for the sperm to swim through. 

The hormonal contraceptive pill doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

You might be able to get the oral contraceptive pill for free. Here at Chemist4U we make it simple and convenient for you to obtain your contraceptive pill.

The new NHS Pharmacy Contraceptive Service (PCS) means that you can receive your regular oral contraception from a pharmacist, for free, saving that trip to your GP! You will still need to complete a consultation before you are given access to the pill.

What are the side effects of the pill?

Irregular bleeding 

The pill can cause many women to experience irregular bleeding. Irregular bleeding is usually classed as bleeding from the vagina that is not a part of your regular period. 

With some types of oral contraception, like the combined pill, you will have a week-long break where you will experience a bleed. This is normal, and isn’t to be confused with irregular bleeding that some women may experience outside of this break. 

Nausea

Nausea is a common side effect of the pill. It is usually worse in the first few days and weeks before the body adjusts. 

Headaches

Headaches are another common side effect of the contraceptive pill. Headaches are linked to a woman's hormones. 

If you are taking the combined contraceptive pill, you may find that you experience headaches during the 7-day break from the pill when you bleed. This can be caused by a sudden drop in oestrogen. Thankfully, the headaches usually pass when you return to taking the pill. 

Bloating 

Taking the pill can lead to water retention and bloating. It can affect you more if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other gastrointestinal tract disorders.

Tender breasts 

Birth control can also cause breast tenderness or pain. The hormones can make the pain stronger. This is a completely normal side effect.

Mood swings 

People who have a history of anxiety, depression and insomnia might notice their symptoms get worse when they are on the pill. 

The effects it has on mood can vary from person to person. 

Intense emotions 

Feeling a little on the emotional side isn’t uncommon when it comes to oral contraception. The pill can alter the structure of your brain and affect your emotions. 

The cause of bleeding on the pill

Bleeding that happens when you are on birth control is usually known as breakthrough bleeding. 

30% to 50% of women using combined birth control pills experience breakthrough bleeding in the first 3 to 6 months. By the third month, this drops to 10% to 30% of women.[1]

Breakthrough bleeding is the most common side effect of the mini pill. If you miss your pill by just 3 hours, it increases your risk of bleeding. 

A missed dose of the pill is a common cause of breakthrough bleeding. Remembering to take your pill can reduce your chances of bleeding. If you have had unprotected sex and completely miss your regular contraceptive pill, you should take an emergency contraception pill.

People who smoke are more likely to have breakthrough bleeding on the pill. 

How to treat irregular bleeding from the contraceptive pill

If you are a smoker, quitting smoking can help you to control bleeding. 

Another way you can stop breakthrough bleeding is to take your pill at the same time each day. 

For many people, breakthrough bleeding stops 3 to 6 months after starting birth control. If you take the pill consistently every day, the bleeding should stop. If you are still bleeding after this point, talk to your doctor. 

How to deal with nausea from the contraceptive pill 

When you start taking the pill, you might experience nausea due to the oestrogen. 

To prevent nausea, you can take the pill with a meal or you can use antacids and anti-nausea medications. 

You can also prevent and treat nausea by taking the pill at the same time each day. You should try taking it at night before you go to bed. 

Other things you can do include:

  • Eating light, bland foods
  • Drinking cold liquids 
  • Eating smaller meals, slowly
  • Avoiding activity after you eat
  • Avoiding spicy foods

Why does the pill give you headaches? 

The change in hormones can be to blame for the headaches you experience. The sudden drop in oestrogen during your inactive pill days might be responsible for you getting a headache or migraine.[2]

Quick treatments for headaches 

When it comes to headaches, there are several things that you can do to help relieve the pain:

  • Use a cold pack
  • Use a heat pad 
  • Ease the pressure on your scalp or head
  • Dim the lights
  • Avoid chewing 
  • Keep hydrated 
  • Take painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol 

Dealing with tender breasts and bloating from the pill 

When it comes to tender breasts, applying heat or ice to your breasts a couple of times a day may help you with the pain. 

Too much salt can cause your body to retain water. The extra fluid your body is holding can cause further discomfort in your breasts, so try and limit your salt intake. Limiting your salt intake can also help with bloating. 

Try and stick to a diet that is rich in whole foods to minimise the chances of bloating. This will help you with digestion. 

Make sure you stay hydrated to flush excess water from your body. 

Dealing with mood swings from the contraceptive pill

If you are experiencing mood swings that are mild or moderate then there are things you can do yourself to help. Exercise, eating healthier, relaxation and other lifestyle changes may provide you with relief. 

If your symptoms are more severe and they interfere with your daily life, then you should talk to your doctor.

Does the mini pill and combined pill have different side effects? 

The type of birth control pill you are taking will play a role in the side effects that you experience. 

Side effects of the combined pill 

  • Headaches 
  • Nausea
  • Mood swings 
  • Changes to libido (sex drive)
  • Enlarged breasts and breast tenderness
  • Vaginal discharge 

Side effects of the mini pill

  • Acne 
  • Irregular bleeding or spotting 
  • Tender and enlarged breasts 
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes 
  • Changes to libido 
  • Nausea 
  • Small fluid-filled sacs (cysts) on your ovaries that are harmless and disappear without the need for treatment

What are the side effects of coming off the pill?

Once you have stopped taking the pill, you might begin to notice some side effects. Some of the common side effects include:

  • Changes to your menstrual cycle, including heavier periods 
  • Cramping during ovulation 
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Changes in mood 
  • Weight changes 
  • Acne 
  • Unwanted hair growth 
  • Headaches 
  • Tender breasts 
  • Changes in sex drive

When you stop taking the pill, it is important to remember that there is a chance you could become pregnant. If you think you are pregnant you should take a pregnancy test.

When you start taking oral contraception, it is normal to experience some side effects. The side effects you experience are different in each person, and they should begin to ease after a couple of months. 

If you are worried about the side effects that you are experiencing, then you should speak to your doctor or a pharmacist for advice. 

Olivia Malone - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 07 February 2024
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