The Risks of Going On and Off the Pill

There are almost as many birth control myths as there are birth control options.  One misconception is that women need to quit taking birth control pills occasionally to give their body a "natural" break. The truth is that going off and on the Pill frequently (aka yo-yoing) is a good way to get pregnant and may even put your health at risk.

Women start taking the Pill for lots of reasons; contraception, of course, but also to regulate their menstrual cycles and hormones and to treat premenstrual symptoms, migraine headaches, heavy bleeding, acne and perimenopausal symptoms. 

There are just as many reasons why women quit taking birth control pills including:

  • They want to get pregnant,
  • They don't have a sexual partner,
  • They don't like how birth control pills feel,
  • They're worried about birth control pill safety
  • They're worried about weight gain
  • They can't afford their prescription

But after a period of time they decide they were better off on the Pill than off the Pill, so they start taking them again. This on-again, off-again birth control yo-yo creates a hormonal roller coaster ride that can be challenging for women's bodies to deal with. It can cause unpleasant side effects and symptoms (like mood swings, nausea, spotting and headaches) and for some women, especially those with menstrual bleeding disorders or for whom pregnancy is risky, it can be dangerous.

Desiree Bley MD, OB-GYN in Portland, OR says, "Women worry about the risks associated with the Pill, but it has been widely tested and safely used by millions of women for 50 years.  The risks of health complications or death associated with taking the Pill are extremely low. The risks for health complications or death from pregnancy are significantly higher.  If women are taking the Pill for bleeding, clotting, cramping, migraines or other health problems, going on and off can make those problems more physically challenging.  When women take the pill, their bodies don't have to produce reproductive hormones and their symptoms settle down. When they quit taking the Pill their body gets busy producing hormones again. It's physically confusing though and they may produce too much or too little for a while they're getting back in the hormone-making business.  That's going to increase odds of getting pregnant, having bleeding and cramping issues and more.  I tell patients it's easier on the body to stay on the Pill than to go on and off frequently."

But what should a woman do if she wants to quit the pill?  Bley says, "The pill's hormones wash out of the body within 36 hours and then our natural hormones pick up the job from there.  It can take up to a few months for hormone levels to adjust.  Be extra careful about using another form of contraception unless you want to get pregnant right away.  Be patient while your body works out the kinks in its hormone production.  Then, if you decide being off the Pill isn't working out, go talk with your doctor about why you quit in the first place.  If you didn't like the way your pill felt, there are lots of other hormonal contraception choices that might work better for you." 



Planned Parenthood

Birth Control

National Women's Health Information Center

Birth Control Methods