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What are the long-term side effects of birth control pills?

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! 

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: 

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: 

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?

Most people's fertility will return to normal very soon after coming off contraception. The exception is sterilisation. 

However, your body may need some time to return to normal after you stop taking the pill, so it might take a couple of months for your cycle to return to normal, but this doesn't mean you can't get pregnant in this time. 

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.

It's advised that you get medical attention if you're sick within two hours of taking Levonorgestrel or three hours of taking ellaOne.

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. 

Looking for contraception?

Go to our contraception service

References 

https://www2.hse.ie/pregnancy-birth/trying-for-a-baby/coming-off-contraception/contraceptive-methods-and-fertility/
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/combined-contraceptive-pill/

Authors and editors

Reviewed and updated by: Our clinical team Date reviewed: 22-09-2023