Hormonal birth control did not increase the risk of major health problems

The central theses

  • Hormonal birth control methods do not appear to be associated with an increased risk of serious health problems in most women.
  • The researchers examined 58 meta-analyses for these conclusions.
  • Experts say the results are reassuring.

Despite repeated evidence that hormonal contraception is largely safe for women to use, concerns remain about whether these drugs are associated with a number of serious and dangerous health outcomes. Now, a major scientific review has found that taking hormonal contraceptives does not appear to be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, or other major negative health risks.

The Umbrella review published in JAMA network open, reviewed data from 58 meta-analyses of randomized clinical trials and cohort studies that analyzed 156 associations between hormonal contraceptive use and poor health outcomes in women.

Researchers found that among women taking hormonal birth control, there were “no associations with adverse outcomes, including cardiovascular and cancer risk,” supported by high-quality evidence. And they found that any existing risks associated with contraception — like blood clotting — remained the same.

The good news is that the review showed that using an IUD that releases levonorgestrel helped reduce endometrial polyps, usually benign growths that attach to the inner wall of the uterus.

“The results of this review study support existing understanding of the risks and benefits associated with hormonal contraceptive use,” the researchers concluded. “Overall, the associations between hormonal contraceptive use and cardiovascular risk, cancer risk, and other serious adverse health effects have not been supported by high-quality evidence.”

Hormonal birth control still carries some risk

Hormonal birth control, which includes the pill, patch, ring, and some IUDs, contains a form of hormone that tries to prevent pregnancy. The most popular types of hormonal birth control are combined hormonal birth control methods that contain estrogen and progesterone.

Combined hormonal birth control methods release estrogen and progestin (the synthetic form of progesterone) into the body. They mainly prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation, but they also thicken the mucus in the cervix to make it harder for sperm to enter the uterus and thin the lining of the uterus.

Combined hormonal birth control methods are considered safe for most women, but previous research has found that they are associated with a slightly increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), heart attack and stroke.

The risk is higher in certain women, including women older than 35 who smoke more than 15 cigarettes a day, or women with multiple risk factors for heart disease, such as:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • A History of Stroke
  • heart attack
  • DVT
  • History of migraine headache with aura

What that means for you

Hormonal contraceptives are generally considered a safe contraceptive method for women. However, everyone’s risk factors are different. Talk to a doctor about your personal medical history before trying a new birth control method.

Experts say the results are reassuring

“We have known for years that combined hormonal contraceptives are actually quite safe and good,” Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, told Verywell.

The number one thing women need to watch out for, she said, is smoking while taking oral contraceptives, which is “bad for your heart and blood clots, especially over 35,” Minkin said. But, she added, “For most other people, there are a lot of benefits.”

This includes preventing heavy periods and severe cramps, as well as preventing pregnancy, Minkin said. In fact, combined hormonal contraceptives reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by up to 50%, Minkin pointed out.

Women’s health expert, Dr. Jennifer Wider told Verywell that she found the study results very reassuring. “Sometimes in different clinical studies, the results and conclusions can be unclear or even contradictory,” she said. “This review examined a pattern that emerged in many, many studies and drew the right conclusions.”

Wider said the latest analysis “complements and reinforces the already existing conclusions about the pros and cons of birth control use. It also provides very high quality evidence that hormonal birth control is not directly linked to cancer, heart disease and other serious adverse health effects.”

But Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, told Verywell that a woman’s medical history is important when it comes to hormonal birth control and health risks. “Every person is unique and risk factors are not the same for every woman,” she said.

Cons agrees. “Everyone has a different personal and family history of illness,” she said. “For example, if a person has a bleeding disorder, hormonal birth control is not a viable option. It is important that every woman discusses her own individual risk with her doctor.”

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