The Birth Control Side Effects Every Well-Informed Woman Should Know

Updated 04/17/19
Birth Control Side Effects
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You've already decided you want to go on birth control (hooray for making grown-up life choices!). But now leaves the question: What kind of birth control should you choose? There are so many factors to consider: Do you want to use a barrier method (like a condom) or something longer-acting (like an IUD)? Do you want hormones or no hormones? Are you comfortable taking a pill every day, or do you want to be able to set it and forget it? To help you determine your ideal birth control method, we've already put together this helpful guide, which explains every type of BC on the market, what it is, how it works, who's it recommended for, and how effective it is.

But there's one consideration we haven't gone into yet: Side effects.

We're dedicating a whole separate guide to birth control side effects because we know how much of a concern they are for many women. The good news, according to OB/GYN Jessica A. Shepherd, MD, a SweetSpot Labs expert and the director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is that the side effects from most birth control methods for most women of child-bearing age are not life-ruining. Plus, because there are so many methods, you're almost guaranteed to find one that jives well with your body. "If there is a side effect that a woman has on one type of birth control, there are so many others to choose from," Shepherd says.

Luckily, we don't have to make that decision all on our own. "My advice to someone who is worried about taking birth control because of its side effects: Find a doctor you trust, and schedule an appointment strictly for birth control counseling," says Sara Twogood, MD, an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Keck Medicine of USC. Dedicating an appointment specifically to talking about birth control will ensure you have enough time to thoroughly discuss options, pros, and cons with your doc.

You can also bring in some of your own research (Twogood recommends checking out the sites Bedsider and Planned Parenthood, as well as surveying your friends for info). In the end, you should be able to pinpoint the right method for your body and lifestyle. Because ultimately, "worrying about an unplanned pregnancy can be more anxiety-provoking than worrying about some minor side effects of birth control," Twogood says.

Keep scrolling for your need-to-know guide to birth control side effects, according to three trusted gynos. (And, of course, be sure to consult your doctor for more personalized information!)

Birth Control Side Effects - Cervical Cap - Diaphragm
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: The cervical cap and diaphragm are both temporary barrier methods of birth control, where you insert a small cup over your cervix before sex. (They both require prescriptions.)

The effectiveness: For the cervical cap, it's 86% for those who have never given birth vaginally and 71% for those who have; for the diaphragm, it's 95%.

The side effects: Twogood says the diaphragm and cap can be difficult to insert and remove and have to fit perfectly in order to be effective. You also have to be comfortable inserting them into the vagina every time you have sex. They may not be best for women with an abnormal cervix ("due to surgery or a pre-existing problem"). And, according to Sherry Ross, MD, an OBGYN and the author of She-ology, they can put you at risk of toxic shock syndrome if left in for longer than 24 hours. (But that is especially rare.)

Birth Control Side Effects - Female Condom
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: Kind of like an inverted male condom, the female condom is a soft plastic pouch that you insert into the vagina before sex.

The effectiveness: 95%

The side effects: It can be uncomfortable and may feel "clumsy" to insert, Twogood says. (Plus, if you insert it incorrectly, it might not do its job.) The product can also cause irritation to the vaginal walls. Plus, there can be problems if you have a latex allergy.

Birth Control Side Effects - Condom
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: It's a latex sheath that covers a male penis. You know the one.

The effectiveness: 98%

The side effects: Latex allergies, skin irritation, and improper application or breakage of the product are most common.

Birth Control Side Effects - Spermicide
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: An OTC cream, foam, or gel product that you apply inside the vagina before sex.

The effectiveness: 85%

The side effects: Irritation of the vaginal mucosa, as well as spermicide allergies, can be a risk of this method. Plus, according to Twogood, spermicide may "increase the risk for sexually transmitted infection, so this is not a good option for women who are engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners."

Birth Control Side Effects - Birth Control Sponge
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: An OTC foam sponge that contains spermicide, which you insert into the vagina before sex.

The effectiveness: 91% for those who have never given birth vaginally; 80% for those who have

The side effects: Pretty much the same as the side effects for spermicide. It can cause allergy, irritation, and is not recommended for women who aren't comfortable inserting the sponge.

Birth Control Side Effects - Birth Control Injection
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: An injection containing the hormone progestin, which you get from a healthcare provider in the arm or buttocks every three months. The most common brand is Depo-Provera.

The effectiveness: 99%

The side effects: Twogood says that irregular spotting and minor weight gain are the most common side effects. (Though 50% women stop getting their period altogether after a year.) According to Ross, less common side effects include headaches, nausea, dizziness, acne, appetite changes, hair loss (or excess growth), and loss of bone mineral density if used for more than two years and combined with other risk factors like a family history of osteoporosis, excess alcohol use, and smoking. This method is also not recommended for women who have a history of depression, "since it may exacerbate those symptoms," Twogood says.

Birth Control Side Effects - Birth Control Pills
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: A daily pill that contains either a combination of the hormones estrogen and progesterone or just progesterone.

The effectiveness: 99%

The side effects: Twogood and Ross agree that the pill agrees with most women's bodies, but side effects can depend on your sensitivity to either estrogen or progesterone. (There are many pills with varying degrees of these hormones, giving you lots of options choose from.) Side effects can include irregular bleeding, minor nausea or breast pain, bloating, headaches, and decreased libido. Your period can also stop altogether, which may feel worrisome to some. You also have to remember to take it every day at the same time, and forgetting to do so decreases the product's efficacy.

Women with certain migraines or a personal history of breast cancer are not recommended to go on the pill. (Ross also maintains that a number of studies show that weight gain is in fact not a side effect of this birth control method.)

Birth Control Side Effects - NuvaRing Side Effects
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: The patch is a thin plastic Band-Aid–like product that contains estrogen and progestin. You stick the patch onto your skin and change it out every month. The ring is a small, flexible circle that you insert into the vagina. It contains the same hormones as the patch and is also swapped out once a month. Both require a prescription.

The effectiveness: 99%

The side effects: Since the patch is similar to a Band-Aid, the edges can get sticky and grimy, and it can be unpleasant to remove. Also, if your workout routine involves swimming, the patch might not be right for you. For the ring, you just need to be comfortable inserting it. Other side effects can be similar to the pill, depending on your sensitivity to the hormones.

Birth Control Side Effects - Birth Control Implant Side Effects
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: This is a small, thin rod that a doctor inserts under the skin of your upper arm and can stay there for up to four years. It contains the hormone progestin.

The effectiveness: 99%

The side effects: Unscheduled spotting is most common during the first year. Periods might get much lighter or stop completely after that (though a few women might experience longer and heavier periods). "If you start to feel weak or dizzy and have constant bleeding, you should contact your healthcare provider to make sure you are not anemic or having an unusual reaction to the birth control implant," Ross advises. Rarer side effects include nausea, headaches, breast pain, weight gain, decreased libido, pain at the insertion site, and discoloration or scarring of the skin over the implant.

Birth Control Side Effects - IUD Side Effects
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

The method: A small, flexible, T-shaped device that a doctor inserts into your uterus, where it can stay for up to 10 years. There are two kinds of IUDs: hormonal and copper.

The effectiveness: 99%

The side effects: Pain or discomfort with insertion is the most common side effect. With the hormonal IUD, irregular bleeding, cramping, and bloating can also occur. With the copper IUD, heavier and more painful periods are quite common.

Ed. Note: The male and female condoms are the only two of these methods that prevent against STDs. Consult your doctor for more information.

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