A recent study found that 1 in 3 teenage girls using birth control pills (BCPs) are using them reasons other than birth control- such as preventing acne, easing menstrual cramps, or helping with PMS. Despite their name, birth control pills are  useful for many purposes besides birth control!

There are many brands of BCPs, but they fall into two basic categories: the”combination” BCPs, which contain the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, and the “progesterone-only” BCPs (which obviously contain only progesterone.)

If your teen doesn’t have certain medical issues (more about this below), they would be prescribed combination BCPs. They are better at controlling symptoms that a teen would take a BCP for, and also provide better birth control if it’s needed.

Let’s look at what BCPs can do for your teen:

  • Menstrual Symptoms: BCPs can ease menstrual cramps, lighten menstrual flow, and shorten the duration of periods. BCPs can even be used in a manner that stops periods altogether, which is both safe and convenient.
  • Endometriosis: Endometriosis is a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. It affects 10-15% of women; in severe cases, periods can be excruciating. Taking BCPs regularly can alleviate monthly pain and help control the condition.
  • PCOS: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome affects 5-10% of women. It is a condition where some reproductive hormone levels are too high, and some are too low, and it can cause obesity, extra body hair, acne, and irregular menstruation. Combination BCPs can help balance out hormone levels and improve symptoms.
  • Acne: As discussed in the recent acne post, part of what contributes to teenage acne is a pubertal surge in the hormone testosterone. Giving a teen the additional estrogen in a combination BCP can counteract the effect of testosterone on the skin.
  • PMS: Pre-Menstrual Syndrome is often caused by changing hormone levels prior to menstruation. Combination BCPs can help stabilize hormone levels (progesterone-only pills may or may not be helpful), easing the depression and emotional turmoil that can be associated with PMS.
  • Birth Control: This is pretty obvious, and we’ll discuss birth control in later posts. But combination BCPs, if taken correctly, provide very effective birth control.

Many parents are concerned about their teen going on BCPs at a younger age. However, all the information we have shows that it is safe and does not affect growth or development.

Some are concerned about BCPs and breast cancer. BCPs have been shown to lower the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer. Some research shows that combination BCPs are associated with a very slight increase in breast cancer risk; other research shows there is no increase in risk. If your teen’s mother, sister, or aunt has had breast cancer, make sure you let their doctor know when discussing BCPs, and discuss the risks and benefits.

Problems such as weight gain, depression, and acne are rarely caused by the combination BCP (and acne is actually improved). Older BCPs had much higher hormone levels, but modern BCPs have low enough hormone levels that these issues are usually not a problem.  

There are a few teens who cannot take the combination BCP. Teens who have clotting or bleeding disorders (such as a history of stroke or certain cancers) may not be able to take combined BCPs. Teens who experience migraines with aura, or have rheumatological conditions like lupus, may or may not be able to take combined BCPs. Your doctor will guide you in the right direction.

Stay tuned for a series on birth control (a.k.a contraception) coming up from Dr. Yolanda Evans! We will discuss BCPs for  birth control in further detail, as well as many other options.

Is your teen taking BCPs for something other than birth control? Are they thinking about it? What have you heard, and what are your concerns?