The oral contraceptive pill is one of the most widely used forms of birth control for women. Based on 2013 data, 27-34% of women use oral contraception, which raises the question; how long can you safely take the pill? Is there such a thing as being on the pill for too long? And if so, can being on the pill for “too long” impact your health?
To gauge the safety of long-term birth control pill use, it’s important to consider the types of birth control pills and their associated side effects and risks.
What are the types of birth control pills available?
In Australia there are two types of birth control pills available: the mini pill and the combination pill.
The minipill contains the hormone progestin which provides a two-way method of pregnancy prevention. First by thickening the cervical mucus to make it harder for sperm to reach and fertilise an egg, and then by thinning the lining of the uterus to make it harder for a fertilised embryo to implant and grow into a full-term pregnancy.
The combination pill contains two hormones, progestin and estrogen. The addition of estrogen prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg into the fallopian tube, where it would normally be fertilised by a sperm.
What are the side effects of birth control use?
When you initially introduce the hormones in birth control pills to your body you may experience some minor bleeding, or spotting, between your periods. Known as breakthrough bleeding, this side effect is more common with progestin-only birth control pills and will normally stop without intervention.
Other side effects of birth control pill use include breast tenderness, nausea, headaches, bloating, fatigue, fluid retention, increased appetite, mood swings, changes to libido, and weight gain. Most of these symptoms are mild and should naturally subside within 2-3 months.
If these birth control pill side effects last longer than 2-3 months or begin to cause concern, speak with your trusted doctor for a potential change of treatment.
Health risks associated with birth control use
Generally, if you don’t experience any negative side effects during the first year of taking your prescribed birth control pill, you should be fine to continue taking that brand for several years provided there aren’t any major changes to your health and lifestyle. However, nearly all forms of birth control with estrogen carry an increased risk of the following health conditions that you should be aware of:
This systematic review of hormonal contraception and risk of venous thrombosis (VT) revealed long-term users of oral contraceptives had an increased risk of developing blood clots, with risk increasing if users have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, and/or diabetes.
Women who mix smoking with oral contraceptives put themselves at an increased risk of heart attack in comparison to smoking only. This risk is heightened for women aged 35 and over.
This meta-analysis identified an increased risk of stroke women using combined oral contraceptives with more than 50 micrograms of estrogen.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is an increased risk of breast and cervical cancers in women who use oral contraceptives. However, the risk of endometrial, ovarian, and colorectal cancers is reduced.
For women with a history of migraines, oral contraceptives containing estrogen have been known to make them worse, however they may experience no changes in their migraine patterns at all.
The verdict on the safety of long-term birth control pill use
Birth control pills are potent drugs administered by healthcare professionals who consider the state of your health currently, and historically. If you are smoking or over the age of 35 your risk of developing a health condition as a result of using oral contraceptive increases. With that being said, the risk is reasonably minimal, and the pill is generally safe to take over a long period of time, especially if you’re on top of your health. If you’re concerned about the risks of long-term birth control pill use, speak with your trusted doctor about alternative methods of birth control.
This blog is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your medical practitioner.