Mood swings. Crippling cramps. Out-of-control tears. Chances are, if you’re a woman who has sex with men and don’t want to be pregnant, you’ve dealt with some of these symptoms. In fact, figures collated by contraception review platform The Lowdown found that 78% of women have experienced unwanted side effects from their contraception, 46% say it has negatively affected their emotions, while for one in three, it’s impacted their relationships.
There’s clearly a major disconnect between women’s needs and the care being provided. It’s even been scientifically proven that women’s pain – including period pain – is taken less seriously than men’s by doctors.
For Alice Pelton, founder of The Lowdown, this gender health gap is a massive problem that needs to be addressed. “It’s embarrassingly bad,” she says. “There’s a severe lack of data, research, investment and action taken into women’s health and bodies.
“In the UK the NHS contraceptive and sexual health services are extremely overstretched. There’s not a lot of time during appointments to discuss the options in detail, with many women needing to conduct their own research or learn how to navigate our complex healthcare system, in order to get access to (or stop using) the various options out there.”
This is one of the reasons she decided to launch The Lowdown. “I realised I couldn’t find useful data on real women’s experiences and side effects from contraception at scale, anywhere. This information is simply not available in the public domain. You either speak to friends, read an intimidating internet forum, or ask your doctor. All of these are small sample sizes, and you’re never sure whether one person’s experience is the norm or the exception.”
Here, Alice shares some of her top tips for finding the right contraception fit for you.
You’ve got 10 minutes with your GP to talk contraception – what’s the most important thing to ask?
“To make the most of that 10 minutes, you should focus on researching your options before you get in the room – really understanding what’s out there, how the different methods work, and asking yourself the questions below.
“A good place to start is The Lowdown – we have lots of information on what’s in them and how they all work, as well as hundreds of reviews from real women who’ve tried every method. You can search through our reviews to find ones from women of your age, lifestage – and filter by satisfaction rating, time used and much more.
“That means that when you’re in the room with your GP you can make the most of the time you have, and your GP can understand which ones would be suitable for you from a medical perspective – e.g. in line with your medical history, blood pressure, other medication, allergies, weight, whether you smoke etc.
What are the most important factors to consider when choosing your contraception?
“The following doesn’t take into account critical medical factors and differences in effectiveness between methods – so please do get advice from your doctor when choosing contraception. But it is useful to consider the following five lifestyle factors when doing your research:
- Can you tolerate hormones? Have you tried The Pill before? Decide whether you want to use a hormonal or non-hormonal method. Women who are mostly satisfied with the Pill but get some specific side effects they’d like to eliminate (breakthrough bleeding or bad skin) may want to try out different types of Pills to get a mix of hormones that works for them – or switch to another long-acting hormonal method such as the implant, IUS (intrauterine system) or injection.
- Do you live your life in a habit? Are you confident you can remember to take something like The Pill every day, or is something you don’t need to remember like the implant or injection better suited for your lifestyle?
- How do you feel about getting an IUS/IUD device fitted? Most women are either open to trying it, or not keen – but they’re growing in popularity in the UK and more and more women are getting them. The hormonal IUS has the highest average satisfaction rating of any method at The Lowdown (3.7 out of 5). It lasts 3-5 years, is very effective, and many women are reporting that it doesn’t negatively impact their mood or sex drive as much as other hormonal methods.
- Do you want to get pregnant soon after you stop using contraception? Methods such as the injection can take some time to leave your system, so aren’t great if you want to start a family in the immediate future.
- Do you want to have periods? Or are you looking to make them lighter or stop them completely? Almost all contraceptives impact your cycle – and can improve it for you.
If you’ve started a new form of hormonal contraception and you’re struggling with the emotional or physical symptoms, what should you do?
“Firstly, don’t suffer in silence. Stay positive. You know your body better than anyone else does, and there will be something else out there that can improve things for you.
“Also be reassured that you are not alone. We have spoken to hundreds of women who are working it through – weighing up their options, battling side effects, making difficult decisions or struggling to get hold of what they need.”
- Book an appointment to speak to your doctor or GP.
- Write a diary of your symptoms. Keep track of them, and be able to explain what you feel is happening to you.
- If you feel like it’s changing your emotions or mood – ask close friends and partners if you’ve changed, and help them keep track of any changes.
- If you can’t get an appointment with your GP (or feel like you’re not getting the help you need) try going to a Sexual Health Clinic. These doctors and nurses are especially clued up on all things related to sex and contraception, and may be able to give you more detailed help or advice on alternatives.
Above all, Alice’s top tip for finding the right fit for you, is perseverance. “Keep trying new things, and asking lots of questions,” she says. “If you’re not satisfied with your contraception it makes you more likely to stop using it properly, making it less effective.
“It’s not an easy choice to make – our findings show that almost half of women had trouble trying to find a method of contraception that suited them. But it’s worth persevering; for many of us contraception is an absolute necessity and something that we use for decades.”
Want to help improve contraception options for all women? Leave a review of your chosen method here.