Benefits and Side Effects of Hormonal Birth Control

person taking pill with a glass of water

Westend61 / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

If you’re considering going on the pill or another form of hormonal birth control, you may wonder how it works and whether it has any side effects. This article explores the benefits and side effects of hormonal birth control methods.

How Hormonal Birth Control Works

Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that affect several bodily functions, including reproduction, mood, growth, and metabolism.

Hormonal birth control methods use hormones like estrogen and progesterone to prevent pregnancy. Some people also take hormonal birth control for other health reasons.

Hormonal birth control methods include:

  • Oral contraceptives: Oral contraceptives are prescription medications that are commonly referred to as “the pill.” Some contain only progestin, whereas others contain a combination of estrogen and progestin and are known as combined oral contraceptives. The pill needs to be taken at the same time every day.
  • Implants: A thin rod containing progestin is inserted into the person’s upper arm by a healthcare professional. It releases progestin into the bloodstream over three years.
  • Injections: The person receives a shot of progestin in their arm or buttocks every three months by a healthcare professional.
  • Intrauterine device (IUD): An IUD is a small plastic device that a health professional inserts into the uterus. It releases the hormone progestin to prevent pregnancy. It can remain in some people for up to five years before it is replaced. It can also be removed at any time by a health professional.
  • Patches: A prescription skin patch is placed on the person’s body. It releases the hormone estrogen (and sometimes progestin) into the person’s body. It needs to be changed every week.
  • Rings: A contraceptive ring containing the hormones progestin and estrogen is inserted into the person’s vagina and worn for three weeks at a time.

Hormonal birth control methods work by:

  • Preventing the ovaries from releasing eggs
  • Blocking sperm from entering the uterus by making the mucus in the cervix thick and sticky
  • Making it difficult for a fertilized egg to attach itself to the uterus by thinning the uterus lining

Benefits of Hormonal Birth Control 

In addition to preventing pregnancy, hormonal contraceptives like the pill can offer health benefits and help improve conditions such as:

  • Irregular menstruation cycles
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) 
  • Dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps)
  • Heavy or long periods
  • Anemia (low hemoglobin)
  • Premenstrual dysmorphic disorder (PMDD)
  • Endometriosis
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Acne
  • Migraines
  • Unwanted hair growth
  • Menopause-related hot flashes
  • Risk of uterine, ovarian, and colon cancer

Side Effects of Hormonal Birth Control 

It’s important to note that while hormonal birth control can help prevent pregnancy, it cannot prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so it’s important to take steps to protect yourself by using condoms as well.

Hormonal birth control is generally considered safe, effective, and well-tolerated—most people don’t experience side effects when they take it.

However, some people may experience physical or emotional side effects such as:

  • Headaches: The altered hormone levels in the body can cause headaches and migraines that often subside after the first few months of being on hormonal birth control.
  • Nausea: Some people experience mild nausea when they first go on hormonal birth control. For people who are on the pill, taking it at night or along with a meal every day can help.
  • Bloating: The hormone estrogen can affect the kidneys and cause water retention. As a result, the person may feel bloated or like they’ve gained weight.
  • Depression: People who have a history of depression may feel low, depressed, or irritable, or experience mood swings.
  • Tenderness or swelling in the breasts: The breasts may feel enlarged, tender, or swollen. Reducing salt and caffeine intake and wearing a supportive bra can help with this. Any pain or lumps in the breast should be shown to a healthcare provider.
  • Irregular menstrual bleeding: Many people experience cramps, spotting, or vaginal discharge in the first three months of going on hormonal birth control.
  • Contact lens tolerance: In rare cases, people who wear contact lenses may experience changes in vision or be unable to tolerate contact lenses.

You may experience side effects when you first go on hormonal birth control, but they generally improve after the first few months. Report any side effects you experience to your healthcare provider.

Risks of Hormonal Birth Control

Some forms of hormonal birth control can cause health risks such as:

  • Blood clots: People who smoke, are above the age of 35, or have a history of heart disease or clotting disorders may be at an increased risk of developing blood clots if they take combined oral contraceptive pills containing estrogen. Blood clots can develop in the legs, abdomen, lungs, eyes, heart, or brain. 
  • High blood pressure: Some forms of hormonal birth control can cause high blood pressure, so healthcare providers typically check the person’s blood pressure before they prescribe birth control.
  • Heart attack: A blood clot in the heart can lead to a heart attack.
  • Stroke: A blood clot in the brain can lead to a stroke.
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): A blood clot in the legs can cause DVT.
  • Breast and cervical cancer: Hormonal birth control may slightly raise the person’s risk of developing breast and cervical cancer.
  • Liver tumors: In rare cases, going on hormonal birth control can lead to the formation of benign tumors in the liver.
  • Gallbladder stones: People who have a family history of gallstone disease may experience accelerated development of gallbladder stones once they go on hormonal birth control.

Your healthcare provider will assess your health as well as your personal and family medical history in order to determine whether you are at risk for any of these conditions and which form of birth control may be most appropriate for you.

Things to Consider

These are some factors to consider while choosing a hormonal birth control method:

  • How effective is that particular form of birth control at preventing pregnancy?
  • How much does it cost and is it covered by your insurance?
  • Does it pose any health risks to you specifically?
  • Is your partner agreeable to using it?
  • Does it require a prescription, clinical visits, or parental consent?
  • Will you remember to take the birth control pill every day or do you prefer longer-acting forms of hormonal birth control?

A Word From Verywell

Hormonal contraceptives can help prevent pregnancy and may offer other health benefits as well. However, since hormones also affect the body in other ways, they can also cause side effects, particularly in the first few months of starting hormonal birth control, as the body adjusts to it.

It’s important to discuss any potential health risks with your healthcare provider before you go on hormonal birth control, and report any side effects to them. You can work with them to determine the most appropriate form of birth control for you, or change your birth control method if it’s not suiting you.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Library of Medicine. Hormones. Medline Plus.

  2. National Institute of Health. Hormonal contraception.

  3. Słopień R, Milewska E, Rynio P, Męczekalski B. Use of oral contraceptives for management of acne vulgaris and hirsutism in women of reproductive and late reproductive age. Prz Menopauzalny. 2018;17(1):1-4. doi:10.5114/pm.2018.74895

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Contraception.

  5. Mayo Clinic. Hormonal IUD (Mirena).

  6. Regidor PA. Clinical relevance in present day hormonal contraception. Horm Mol Biol Clin Investig. 2018;37(1). doi:10.1515/hmbci-2018-0030

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Birth control pill.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STDs.

  9. Nemours Foundation. Birth control pill.

  10. Brown University. What are the side effects of birth control pills?

  11. National Library of Medicine. Birth control and family planning. Medline Plus.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.