It’s no secret that the contraceptive pill can bring a host of side effects – and until now, countless women have accepted them as the necessary evil to prevent unwanted pregnancy, along with manages a host of health conditions, from reproductive diseases to skin problems. So, why are women turning away from the pill and what alternatives are available? We’ll be unpacking the phenomenon and what it means for your health – plus, we speak to one Queenslander who says the pill had her bed bound with nausea.
Research shows that a steadily increasing number of women have been ditching the pill, with many opting for an IUD or contraceptive implants – though these can have their own hefty list of side effects. We’ll be diving into why we’re seeing a rise in these alternate methods – but first, let’s find out why the switch is happening in the first place.
Why women are moving away from the pill
For many, the debilitating and dangerous side effects are one of the biggest drivers for ditching the pill. From nausea and depression to low libido, women have long suffered from these effects in order to have control of their fertility. While we’re starting to see the numbers of pill defectors add up now, this decline has been ongoing for quite a few years – between 2002 and 2012-13, there was a 0.6% drop in women using the drug. Take that number to 2015, and we see a 4.5% drop.
There’s also a growing concern around information withheld by doctors – many women have reported they weren’t given the details around the extensive – and severe – side effects that can crop up, often being prescribed the meds for conditions like acne or hormonal imbalances with little discussion around the risks.
Grace Martin is one of many women to suffer severe symptoms from the pull.
“It was awful, I would have blurred vision, bed bound with migraines and nausea for days.”
The Queenslander was initially prescribed the pill to treat her acne – and while it may have gotten the job done, it also came with a host of debilitating symptoms.
"I struggled with extremely bad skin in my teens, I remember crying to my mum every morning, begging her to help me find something that would fix my skin,” she says. “Finally, I went to the doctor and they put me on the pill. At first it was a big confidence boost when people would complement how clear my skin had become, and because of this I ignored the symptoms that came with being on the pill.
“It was almost like an unhealthy comfort blanket.”
But Grace’s symptoms didn’t subside – she reveals how she started to dread their debilitating effects and knew something had to change.
“As I got older, I couldn't bare every month getting to my period and knowing I would be so sick,” she says. “I spoke to doctors and they would help me switch to different pills. In hind sight I don't think this was good for me, and I should have just gone off the contraceptive; as I would have been battling crazy mental health on some and on others my breakouts came flooding back.”
After years on the pill, the Queenslander took things into her own hands and decided to get some answers.
“It's not until my late 20s and talking with skin experts and doing the research that I finally understand what the pill does to our bodies,” she says. “Now my journey to health my skin and hormones from a decade of being on the pill has begun and I’m so excited to know what my body will feel like without relying on the pill."
There are also a number of women moving away from the pill due to the havoc it can wreak on hormones, instead opting for non-hormonal methods like copper IUDs, barrier methods like condoms, fertility awareness-based methods and sterilisation. As we mentioned earlier, long-acting reversable contraption like IUDS and implants are growing in popularity as the pill is dropping, and this is another major reason for this phenomenon. The jump in awareness and education around these methods is a massive contributor, and many find they can also offer increased convenience as they don’t require daily adherence. On that note – the increased awareness and education around birth control is also driving this trend as now have greater access to information about various contraceptive methods and their pros and cons. This increased awareness has allowed women to make more informed choices about contraception, leading to a broader range of options being considered beyond the contraceptive pill.
The side effects
So, let’s dive into the extensive list of possible side effects of the pill – from the less serious to the life-threatening, there’s a lot to be aware of.
- Nausea: Some individuals may experience feelings of nausea, particularly when starting the pill. Taking the pill with food or before bed may help alleviate this side effect.
- Headaches: Hormonal changes caused by the contraceptive pill can lead to headaches or migraines in some individuals. If you experience severe or persistent headaches, it is advisable to consult your healthcare provider.
- Breast tenderness: Some people may experience breast tenderness or swelling as a side effect of the pill. This symptom usually subsides over time but can be bothersome initially.
- Mood changes: Hormonal fluctuations triggered by the contraceptive pill can affect mood in certain individuals, leading to changes such as mood swings, irritability, or even depressive symptoms. If you notice significant mood changes, it is recommended to discuss them with your healthcare provider.
- Spotting or breakthrough bleeding: Irregular bleeding or spotting between periods can occur, especially during the first few months of pill use. This is usually temporary and tends to resolve as the body adjusts to the medication.
- Changes in menstrual flow: The contraceptive pill may alter the regularity and flow of menstrual periods. Some individuals may experience lighter or shorter periods, while others may experience heavier or longer periods.
- Decreased libido: In some cases, the contraceptive pill may lead to a decrease in sexual desire or libido. If this persists and is problematic, discussing alternative contraceptive options with your healthcare provider is recommended.
- Weight changes: While not a universal side effect, some individuals may experience slight weight fluctuations while taking the pill. It is important to note that the pill itself does not cause significant weight gain, but individual factors such as fluid retention or changes in appetite may contribute.
- Blood clotting: The contraceptive pill has been associated with a slightly increased risk of blood clots. The risk is higher in individuals with other risk factors such as smoking, obesity, or a personal or family history of blood clots. It's crucial to discuss your medical history with your healthcare provider before starting the pill.
- Other side effects: Some individuals may experience additional side effects such as acne changes, changes in vaginal discharge, or digestive issues. These are generally mild and tend to resolve on their own.
- Stroke: In some cases, hormonal contraceptives have been linked to an increased risk of ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain.
- Heart attack: Certain individuals, particularly those with existing cardiovascular conditions or risk factors, may have an increased risk of heart attack while using hormonal contraceptives.
- High blood pressure: The contraceptive pill can occasionally raise blood pressure in some individuals. Regular monitoring is important, especially for individuals with a history of hypertension or other cardiovascular conditions.
- Liver problems: While rare, the use of hormonal contraceptives can lead to liver-related complications, such as liver tumours or benign liver adenomas.
- Gallbladder issues: The pill may slightly increase the risk of gallbladder disease or gallbladder inflammation.
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