Contraceptive Pill Side Effects

Potential side effects of the pill

Last reviewed: 08 Mar 2019

2 women walking in the city talking about the side effects and their contraceptive pills

Key takeaways

  • It's common for the contraceptive pill to cause some side effects, such as mood swings, sore breasts, headaches, nausea, and acne

  • Problematic bleeding is a potential side effect in the first few months. This is more common with the mini pill than the combined pill

  • There are some less common side effects that are more serious, such as vomiting, rash, migraines, and loss of interest in sex

  • The combined pill can raise your blood pressure, and has also been known to slightly increase your risk of getting blood clots (thrombosis) and breast and cervical cancer

Contents of this article

What is the contraceptive pill?

The contraceptive pill (also known simply as ‘the pill’) is one of the most common forms of contraception used by women today. Used correctly, it is over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy.

The pill is taken orally, and comes in two types: the combined oral contraceptive pill (COC) and the mini-pill or progesterone-only pill (POP). Combined pills contain synthetic versions of two hormones that are produced naturally by your body, oestrogen and progestogen, whereas the mini-pill only contains progesterone.

Are there side effects?

It’s common that the contraceptive pill may cause some side effects, although these will vary from person to person and will depend on the type of pill you take.

What are the most common side effects?

The most common side effects from taking the combined contraceptive pill include:

  • mood swings (anxiety, depression)
  • sore or tender breasts
  • headaches
  • nausea and abdominal pain
  • dizziness

Putting on weight has traditionally been listed as a potential side effect. But, recent studies have dismissed any clear link between the combined pill and weight gain

The most common side effects from taking the mini-pill include:

  • acne
  • breast pain
  • nausea

Mood swings or depression and weight gain have been listed as potential side effects of the mini pill. But, recent guidelines advise that it’s not clear that these side effects are caused by the mini-pill.

These side effects aren’t dangerous and will usually stop soon after the first few months of treatment. Some women may experience breakthrough bleeding or spotting – this should settle within the first few months of starting the pill. In the event that it doesn’t, please seek medical attention.

Are there any other more serious side effects?

There are some less common side effects from the contraceptive pill that can be more serious. These include:

  • vomiting or diarrhoea
  • rash or hives
  • loss of interest in sex
  • migraines
  • breast enlargement

If you ever experience any of these side effects, or any of your usual side effects become severe, you should stop taking the pill, use alternative contraception and seek urgent medical attention.

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How long will side effects last?

Common side effects are usually only temporary and should go away within the first few months of beginning to take the contraceptive pill. If your side effects don’t go away after three months, discuss trying a new pill or alternative forms of contraception with your doctor.

Try to find a pill that works for you, and to remember that there is no one ‘perfect’ pill! Many women will try several types before finding one that suits them and has the least disruptive side effects.

Are there any dangerous side effects from the pill?

Dangerous side effects from the contraceptive pill are rare, but have been recorded. The combined pill can raise your blood pressure, and has also been known to slightly increase your risk of getting blood clots (thrombosis), heart attack and stroke, and breast and cervical cancer.

Before you start the pill, your doctor will check your blood pressure and risk factors for heart disease and stroke to see if this is, or could potentially be, an issue. You should seek urgent medical help if you ever think you might have the signs of:

  • a blood clot: sudden pain and swelling of the leg, shortness of breath, chest pain, or coughing up blood
  • breast cancer: breast lumps, breast pain, nipple discharge, or skin changes
  • cervical cancer: bleeding after sex, persistent bleeding in between periods, or vaginal discharge

Drug interactions and warnings

Make sure to discuss your full medical history with your prescribing doctor before starting to take the contraceptive pill as it can interact with some medicines. These include:

  • certain antibiotics, including rifabutin and rifampicin, which are used to treat meningitis and tuberculosis
  • some epilepsy medicines
  • some HIV medication
  • some weight loss medicines and laxatives
  • herbal remedy St. John’s Wort

The pill should never be taken if you’re pregnant, and only the progesterone only pill is suitable if you’ve had a baby less than 6 weeks ago and are breastfeeding. If you think you might be pregnant, take a test to confirm.

Is it worth it?

The pill won’t suit every woman. Some women find that the side effects they experience as a result of using it negatively outweigh the potential benefits, and will choose to stop taking them. Remember, the pill is just one form of contraception! There are many others to choose from if it doesn’t agree with you.

However, for many women, the pill is the easiest, cheapest and most convenient type of contraception.

dr-clair-grainger.png

Dr Clair Grainger studied at The University of Edinburgh from 2004 to 2009. She's worked in hospitals throughout Edinburgh and London before completing her GP training in North Middlesex Hospital in 2017.

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Last reviewed: 08 Mar 2019

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