The pill: From sexual revolution to cancer and depression links – everything you need to know about its risks

Hormonal contraceptives are used by 3.5 million women in the UK alone but how much do we know about their side effects?

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Wednesday 02 November 2016 07:58 GMT
Contraceptive pills
Contraceptive pills (Getty)

The contraceptive pill sparked a sexual revolution for women when it hit the mainstream in the 1960s, but how much do we really know about its side effects?

Hormonal contraceptives are used by 3.5 million women in the UK alone, allowing them to prevent pregnancy on their terms, but many of the side effects affecting women today haven’t improved since its inception.

Last week, a pioneering trial of the male contraceptive injection was halted due to “intolerable” side effects suffered by 20 of its 320 participants, including depression, muscle pain, mood swings, acne and changes to the libido.

While the advantages of the contraceptive pill are well-documented, how much do we really know about the side effects women endure?

From low libido to depression, weight gain and irregular bleeding, some women suffer symptoms that drastically affect their quality of life, despite being recognised as “normal” by the medical profession.

One of the biggest risks for women of taking the combined pill is an increase in the chance of developing deep vein thrombosis, which, while only affecting two in 10,000 women, can be fatal.

There is also an increased risk of breast cancer associated with certain contraceptives, along with a higher chance of getting cervical cancer or having a stroke.

One woman told The Independent how she ignored headaches and nausea for weeks as they were listed as “normal” side effects on the leaflet.

“I started having headaches and feeling nauseous after a few days of starting the combined pill but these side effects were listed on the leaflet, which said it was normal. It was a month and a half later that I couldn't deal with it any longer. I would have a migraine that started in the morning and got steadily worse throughout the day. The pressure in my head made it feel like I was drowning. I felt as though I couldn't get oxygen to my brain and I couldn't keep food down,” she told The Independent.

“When I went back to the doctor she took my blood pressure and she was alarmed because it was extremely high. I was risking a stroke or a heart attack if I carried on taking it. It turns out I'm sensitive to oestrogen and I should never have taken it. I wish I had not accepted that the side effects were something we were supposed to just endure. The side effects went when I stopped taking it - I should have stopped sooner.”

A recent study found women who take the pill, had implants, patches or intrauterine devices, were 23 per cent more likely to suffer from depression, with anxiety, mood swings and low mood all commonplace side effects of female contraceptive methods.

One woman, who took the combined pill Microgynon, told The Independent: “It made my world monochrome. I didn't cry, I didn't laugh. I was just dead inside and couldn't figure out why for a long time. I was completely fine after I stopped taking it”.

Another said: “I've tried a couple; all make me feel like a zombie. Like I'm just not myself. So I don't take it any more.”

One woman told how her libido was “completely zapped” when she took the pill, immediately returning to normal when coming off it.

"While it's disappointing that this new hormone injection will take longer to reach men's medicine cabinets, we strongly advocate better research into the side effects of contraceptives - for men and women," Sophie Walker, Women's Equality Party leader, told The Independent.

"Women have been putting up with the debilitating effects of contraceptives since the invention of the combined pill in the 1960s - they've also borne the brunt of responsibility for birth control since then. We need new options that take the onus away from women handling this on their own - time for their partners to man up, I'd say."

Natika Halil, chief executive of the sexual health charity FPA, said there were options for both men and women if they suffered unwanted side effects from their contraceptive methods.

“Women may experience different side effects with different methods, sometimes including beneficial ones, like lighter, less painful bleeds or improved acne,” she told The Independent.

“It’s important to remember that nobody has to put up with unwanted side effects – there are 15 methods of contraception available (for men and women) in the UK, so they aren’t limited to just one option and there are others they can try.”

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