Hormonal methods of birth control are considered safe for most people. But is there a limit to how long you can safely use birth control?
Some people take the birth control pill for much of their adult lives without a break. Others use long-term hormonal contraception devices, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), that can stay in place for several years.
The safety of using long-term hormonal birth control may depend on a person’s risk factors, age, and medical history.
Read on to find out the short-term and long-term effects of birth control.
Hormonal methods of birth control contain artificial progesterone or estrogen and progesterone. They affect the hormone levels in a person’s body, so many people experience side effects shortly after taking them.
Not all people will experience side effects. Some side effects will go away within several months as the body adjusts to the hormones. Other side effects may develop after taking hormones for some time.
Possible short-term side effects of birth control include:
- bleeding between periods, or spotting
- breast tenderness
- weight gain
- mood swings
For most people, using contraceptives for a long time does not cause significant problems.
Many people use hormonal birth control for contraception. But, others take hormonal birth control to manage long-term medical conditions. Conditions include heavy or painful periods, endometriosis, and menopause symptoms. Doctors approve the use of the pills for these conditions, so they should be okay to take.
A doctor can advise individuals about the safety and risks of using long-term birth control according to their medical history.
There are several factors and possible side effects to consider when taking long-term birth control:
Birth control and cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is mixed evidence that hormonal contraceptives may increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer but reduce the risk of endometrial, ovarian, and colorectal cancers.
The hormones in birth control, including progesterone and estrogen, may stimulate the growth of some types of cancer cells and reduce the risk of others developing.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that people who have taken birth control pills are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than those who have never used them. However, this risk goes away when people have been off the pill for 10 or more years.
The ACS also report that taking birth control for more than 5 years may increase the risk of cervical cancer. The longer people take the pill, the higher their risk. However, the risk should go back down gradually when someone stops taking the pill.
A large-scale study published in 2018 looked at the cancer prevalence in over 100,000 women aged 50 to 71 who were currently taking birth control pills. The study indicated that long-term use of birth control decreased the risk of both ovarian and endometrial cancer.
Researchers are not sure why birth control pills may lower the risk of certain cancers. It may be because the pill decreases the number of ovulations a person has in their lifetime, which exposes them to less naturally occurring hormones.
Birth control and blood clots
A 2013 meta-analysis of 26 studies indicated that the use of oral contraceptives containing both progesterone and estrogen increased people’s risk of developing a blood clot.
Most people can safely use hormonal contraceptives for many years, provided their doctor has recommended it.
However, many long-term birth control methods contain hormones. This can cause problems depending on a person’s medical history, age, and overall health. Doctors may advise some people to avoid using certain types of birth control.
If a birth control pill causes side effects, people can speak to their doctor and change pills until they find one that works for them.
People with a history of blood clots may prefer progesterone-only birth control pills or the hormone-free IUD.
There are several long-term birth control options. All hormonal methods of birth control, including the pill, patch or implant, may cause similar side effects and long-term risks.
There is no one “best” method of birth control. The best option depends on a person’s lifestyle and medical history.
Most long-term birth control options involve the use of hormones. The hormones work in two main ways: stopping ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus, which makes it difficult for the egg and sperm to meet.
Long-term non-hormonal options are also available, including the non-hormonal IUD.
Long-term contraception methods include the following:
- Birth control pills: Contraceptive pills often contain both artificial progesterone and estrogen. People can also use progesterone-only pills.
- Contraceptive shots: Contraceptive shots contain progesterone and prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation. A doctor can give a contraceptive shot every 3 months.
- Contraceptive implants: An implant is a small, thin rod that a doctor inserts under the skin in the arm. It releases hormones that prevent ovulation. The implant protects from pregnancy for up to 4 years.
- Vaginal ring: A person inserts a vaginal ring inside their vagina. The person leaves the ring in for 3 weeks and then takes it out for 1 week. The ring releases hormones, which prevent ovulation.
- Contraceptive patch: The patch contains hormones that prevent pregnancy. A person sticks the patch on their back, bottom, or arm. The person changes the patch weekly for 3 weeks then takes the fourth week off. They must repeat this every month.
- Intrauterine device (IUD): An IUD is a small device that a doctor inserts in the cervix. Currently, IUDs last anywhere from 3 to 12 years. People can get hormonal or non-hormonal versions of the IUD.
- Surgical Sterilization: Options are available for both sexes. However, these are permanent methods. They are completely hormone-free.
Using hormonal birth control is safe for as long as you need, provided that a doctor has given the okay. People should discuss their individual needs and risk factors with a doctor when deciding whether to stay on hormonal contraception for an extended period.
Consider all the options and discuss all possible health risks and benefits with a healthcare provider.