What Is the Best Way to Track Birth Control Side Effects?

What Is the Best Way to Track Birth Control Side Effects? – Birth control is a wonderful thing. It gives you autonomy over your reproductive health so you can choose to try to get pregnant (or not!) on your own terms. But birth control isn’t perfect, and anyone who has experienced side effects from their contraception of choice knows that all too well.

With that said, it can be difficult to figure out what’s a result of your birth control and what’s just a coincidence, since many of the potential side effects are nonspecific and could be caused by many other things happening in the body. By tracking your symptoms (or lack thereof) when you’re using your birth control, you can start to piece together the puzzle and suss out whether your pill, patch, ring, injection, vaginal gel, IUD, or implant is possibly to blame. But exactly how to track your symptoms, and what to take note of, may not be super intuitive.

First, let’s talk about what birth control side effects may look like.

Many people experience side effects when using hormonal contraception, which makes up a majority of your birth control options. For context, research suggests that about 63% of people who stopped taking birth control pills and about 65% of people who had their IUDs removed—two popular forms of contraception—said side effects were a leading reason they decided to make a change, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Anecdotally, people who use hormonal contraception tend to experience side effects when they first start using a new method. “Most side effects are temporary and resolve spontaneously,” Jonathan Schaffir, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. He generally expects any potential side effects to last up to three cycles after someone starts using a new form of birth control.

These potential side effects can run the gamut, depending on your health history and the form of contraception you’re using; an IUD, for example, may cause more pelvic pain for the first few weeks than the pill because it needs to be physically placed inside the uterus. In general, though, birth control side effects can include everything from temporary menstrual cycle changes (like irregular bleeding patterns or spotting) to breast tenderness to nausea and headaches. These types of side effects tend to be minor and resolve on their own over time, Dr. Schaffir says. Some people may also deal with more complicated side effects, like weight fluctuations or low libido; these can be tough to get to the bottom of because they can also be heavily influenced by other factors and current research doesn’t consistently link birth control to these side effects.

You’ll likely experience some pleasant side effects too. “Some birth control pills can reduce [hormonal] acne, treat PMS symptoms, regulate and lighten periods, decrease pain with periods, and lower the risk of ovarian cancer,” Jessica Kiley, MD, MPH, associate professor and chief of general obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF.

But if you feel like something is off after you start using a new form of birth control, tracking how you’re feeling physically and mentally can help you and your health care provider figure out the source of your symptoms.

What Is the Best Way to Track Birth Control Side Effects?

A little detective work might help you figure out if birth control may be to blame for any unusual body changes. Here’s what experts recommend.

1. First, read the insert that comes with your birth control prescription or ask your doctor to brief you on what to expect.

Yes, we’re talking about that giant sheet of paper that’s tucked into your prescription packet. Instead of just tossing it, Dr. Schaffir suggests giving it a skim. Even though it can be quite dense, he says reading through the possible side effects will help you be more conscious of them from the beginning, so you’ll hopefully notice them easily if they do start to affect you.

Regardless of the form of birth control you choose, make sure your doctor briefs you on any potential side effects and risks—as well as the benefits—beforehand so you know what to expect. You should have this convo with your doctor any time you’re starting a new method, even if you’ll get more information at the pharmacy.

2. Start keeping a symptoms diary.

When you start a new form of birth control, start a journal right along with it. This can be as simple as a physical notebook or the Notes app on your phone—whatever is easiest for you to keep up with. (If you’re worried about using something like a period tracker or another health app due to potential privacy concerns, stick to non-digital options.)

Keep tabs on how you feel for at least three months. “Monitor for a few cycles, then discuss with your clinician,” Dr. Kiley says. Though it’ll be very individual to your body, here are some of the general things you should try to jot down:

Period timing: Write down the exact date of when your menstrual bleeding starts each month, as well as the date when the bleeding stops, Aparna Sridhar, MD, associate clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Health, tells SELF. Note the flow as light, moderate, or heavy each day of your period so you can report that to your doctor if needed, she suggests.

Physical changes: Include specific notes about your symptoms during your period (and throughout the rest of the month), like how much spotting is appearing and how long it lasts, the severity of your cramping, and the degree of bloating or breast tenderness you’re experiencing. You should also note if the symptom is staying relatively the same or progressively getting worse, Dr. Sridhar says. A simple way to do that is by rating the severity on a scale of one to five, with five being the most disruptive, bothersome, or painful, she says. Make sure to add dates and times for these symptoms too.

Mental health changes: There isn’t definitive proof that using hormonal birth control exacerbates depression or other mental health issues, according to 2020 research, but mood changes are a commonly reported symptom.1 So it’s important to write down any mood-related symptoms right along with your physical symptoms each day and try to name them as best you can, such as feeling particularly emotional at certain times, having sharp swings in your moods, or feeling depressed, Dr. Sridhar says. You should also include references to specific life events or happenings—say, a breakup, a high-stress period at work, or any other impactful life events—that correlate with the time period you started birth control, she adds.

Medications or supplements you’re taking: There are plenty of medications that can trigger similar side effects to birth control. For example, some antidepressants and blood pressure drugs can also impact libido. So make sure you write down other meds you’re taking in your journal (yes, including supplements); add the medication name, dosage, and how often you take it, Dr. Sridhar recommends. It’s not always easy to decipher exactly which side effect is coming from which medication on your own, she points out, so having all this information down can be helpful if you need to have a conversation with your doctor.

Diet and exercise changes: If you changed up either of these recently, include them in your tracker, Dr. Sridhar says. For example, if you recently started eating a vegan diet and your mystery symptoms are stomach-related, it’s worth documenting what foods you’re eating and how you feel after to see if there’s any sort of connection. The same goes for your exercise habits: Major shifts in your activity—for example, you start training for a marathon—can also prompt changes in your body, like muscle soreness, headaches if you’re dehydrated, or GI symptoms (runners trots are so real). Basically, write down any workouts that feel especially new to you, says Dr. Sridhar, and note how your symptoms change during and after.

3. Take a break to see if you notice any significant changes.

If you feel that your symptoms are bothersome and interfere with your normal activities, another way to parse whether your birth control might be causing your symptoms is to stop using that method of birth control, if you can. Keep up with your journal for a good three months after so you can see if there’s a difference, Dr. Sridhar says.

It’s generally safe to stop taking birth control pills, wearing the patch or ring, or ask your doctor for an IUD or implant removal at any time. If you use birth control to help manage a medical condition like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), be sure to discuss it with your doctor before you stop taking your birth control, Dr. Kiley notes.

And remember to use a backup method of contraception right away, such as condoms or spermicide, if you’re not planning to get pregnant, Dr. Sridhar adds. | What Is the Best Way to Track Birth Control Side Effects?

If your doctor determines your birth control is the root of your side effects, here’s what to consider.

So you’ve brought your robust symptom journal to your doctor, and the two of you end up determining that your contraception is likely causing your symptoms. Now what?

If the effects are minor, like mild headaches or the occasional upset stomach, you’ll need to suss out what you’re okay with and for how long, Dr. Schaffir says. You may decide that it’s worth sticking out the symptoms for a couple of months after you start your birth control to see if the side effects resolve on their own (because you like the method otherwise). You may also just ultimately decide to deal with the minor stuff in favor of having a reliable way to prevent pregnancy, he adds.

Any side effects that cause you significant discomfort or interruptions to your life deserve to be addressed, says Dr. Sridhar. For example, irregular bleeding is a common side effect, she points out, but if it’s severe enough that you’re leaking through pads or tampons or even missing work from pain, that’s a major sign that you need to loop in your doctor and try something else.

There’s no reason for you to just deal with that or any other birth control side effect that’s taking over your life. Remember: You know your body better than anyone. Even if your doctor doesn’t believe your symptoms are stemming from your birth control (but you really, really believe something is up), you have the power to stop or change your method, no questions asked. Work with your doctor (or get a second opinion) to explore what else is out there so you can find the method that works the best for your needs.

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