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What are the side effects of birth control?

When our grandmothers first discovered the pill 50 years ago, they could have never imagined the many types of oral contraceptives available today. Since 1960, scientists have tried to formulate better, and safer, variants of birth control for women. Ironically, recent studies show that our mother’s generation of combined hormonal contraceptives may be safer than our own.

Four generations of oral contraceptives

When the first generation of birth control pills came to the U.S. in 1960, they were formulated with large amounts of oestrogen. Many women complained of adverse side effects such as decreased sexual desire, nausea and mood swings. Within a few years, more serious reports began to surface concerning blood clots, heart attacks and even strokes. Second generation oral contraceptives were developed in the early 1970s and these contained smaller amounts of oestrogen than the original pill. A progestin called levonorgestrel was used in the manufacturing of this product. Although this contraceptive was considered safer than its predecessor, it caused androgenic side effects, including acne, weight gain and hirsuitism. In the 1980s a new type of oral contraceptive was formulated using gestodene or desogestrel. This third generation oral contraceptive caused less androgenic side effects than the second generation pills. Some women who used the drug complained of breakthrough vaginal spotting, breast tenderness and fluctuations in weight. The current generation of birth control pills have been approved for use in the treatment of moderate acne and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, or "PMDD". The progestin in this fourth generation pill is known as drospirenone. Drospirenone is effective in reducing water-weight. However, serious side effects of this drug can can include hyperkalimia, or elevated blood serum potassium levels. Hyperkalimia may cause life threatening complications such as heart arrhythmia.

Safest type of birth control pill

In August 2009, BMJ cited research conducted by Ojvind Lidegaard. The research indicated that "the risk of venous thrombosis in users of combined oral contraceptives decreases with decreasing doses of oestrogen". Mr. Lidegaard also found that "the risk of venous thrombosis from pills containing drospirenone corresponds to those containing desogestrel or gestodene and is higher than with levonorgestrel." In April 2011, BMJ reported that "users of oral contraceptives containing drospirenone had around a two-fold increased risk of idiopathic venous thromboembolism, compared with users of those containing levonorgestrel, although the overall risk was low." Women who smoke, have high blood pressure, or are at risk for cerebrovascular or cardiovascular disease. These types of women ought to avoid taking combination hormonal contraceptives. Although the latest research suggests that second generation pills, containing levonorgestrel, may be the safest type of combined oral contraceptive presently available, it is recommended that all women consult their GP before choosing an appropriate birth control method.

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