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Oral Contraceptives and Your Body
Oral contraceptives supply the body with doses of synthetic female hormones. Most are combination pills, containing both estrogen and progestin (the synthetic version of progesterone), while some only contain progestin. By introducing these sex hormones to the body, taking birth control pills causes several changes to the female reproductive system which make it nearly impossible for pregnancy to occur — eggs aren't released from the ovaries, the lining of the uterus changes, and cervical mucus thickens to prevent sperm from entering the uterus. While these changes are the reason that oral contraceptives are taken, the hormones can cause other potential effects on the body.
There are some side effects that are positive, but others are not. It is the possible negative impact of these hormones that leads to the problem of oral contraceptives and adverse side effects. Not everyone experiences negative side effects when taking birth control pills, but being aware of the possible adverse impact is important for understanding your health.
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Some of the effects of the hormonal changes are very mild and may only last for a period of time as the body adjusts to taking the pill. Spotting, breast tenderness, water retention, weight gain, mood shifts, and nausea are all possible short-term, mild side effects. Other reactions that your body may have from taking oral contraceptives include:
- Appetite changes
- Unusual hair growth
- Vaginal discharge
- An irritation or itching of the vagina
- Swollen gums
- Brownish patches on the skin
- Irregular or painful periods
While these adverse effects are not necessarily dangerous, it is important to discuss them with your doctor if they do not go away or if they are severe.
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There are other symptoms that may be a sign of adverse effects. These problems are much less likely to occur, but they are more serious. The following warrant an immediate call to the doctor:
- Dizziness or fainting
- Severe headaches, vomiting, or stomach pain
- Troubled vision, double vision, or bulging eyes
- Swollen hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs
- Severe mood changes, depression, lethargy
- Chest pain or heaviness
- Shortness of breath
- Numbness in an arm or leg
- Very heavy menstrual bleeding
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Negative Effects on the Body
How does long-term use of oral contraceptives impact the body? According to research published in 1979, the following changes may occur in the body:
- Mild increase in blood pressure
- Increased occurrence of urinary tract infections (infections are 25 to 50 percent more likely with women who take the pill)
- Slight decrease in glucose tolerance
- Blood coagulation increases
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Increasing Risk for Serious Health Problems
Another potential problem with taking birth control pills is the increased risk of some very serious health problems. Oral contraceptives that contain estrogen also increase the risk of blood clots. While blood clots are very rare, they can be dangerous and even fatal. Smoking also increases the chance of blood clots. This is why women who smoke may be advised not to take oral contraceptives. Heavy smoking, being over the age of 35 and obesity all also increase risk even more. Talk to your doctor about your lifestyle habits and discuss how you can decrease your risk for blood clots, heart attack and stroke.
According to the National Institutes of Health it is also possible that taking the pill will increase your chances of developing liver tumors, breast cancer and liver cancer.
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Is the Pill Safe?
Despite the possible adverse side effects of oral contraceptives, the pill is considered to be safe. Taking a look at the impact on the body and the list of side effects that may occur both women and their doctors can discuss what is right for each individual. For most women the benefits of taking birth control pills far outweigh the risks.
Serious problems are unlikely, especially with healthy individuals. To be safe it is important to talk to your doctor about all of your lifestyle habits, the use of any prescription medications, and past health issues to let them know about your specific state of health. They can discuss with you your own level of risk for adverse side effects and how to reduce the chances of a negative impact.
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Feminist Women's Health Center <http://www.fwhc.org/birth-control/thepill.htm>
Medicine Plus of the National Institutes of Health <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a601050.html>
Engel HJ. "Adverse effects of oral contraceptives." (July 1979, National Institutes of Health Database) <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/554952>
photo by Ceridwen