16 Things You Probably Don't Know About Birth Control
Last Updated: Sep 22, 2015
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99 percent of American sexually active women between the ages of 15 and 44 use some form of contraception -- whether it’s the pill, condoms or another method -- during their childbearing years. So chances are that you’re familiar with the various forms of pregnancy prevention. That said, you might still have unanswered questions. For example, do you ever wonder if it’s true that the pill will make you gain weight or whether using an IUD could lead to infertility? There’s still a lot of mystery and misinformation out there as well as new research that can help answer some of those questions. We looked at recent studies and talked to top experts to clear things up. Of course, always consult with your doctor before making any decisions about your health.
THE PILL REDUCES THE RISK OF DEVELOPING OVARIAN CANCER
Birth control pills prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation, which can reduce the risk for ovarian cancer. “It’s not exactly clear why,” says Kari Braaten, M.D., an OB/GYN at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “but studies show the fewer times a woman ovulates, the lower the risk.” According to a 2008 study published in The Lancet, if the current level of oral contraceptive use remains steady, 30,000 cases of ovarian cancer worldwide could be prevented each year. The study also revealed that the longer women use oral contraceptives, the lower their risk of ovarian cancer. However, because the pill can also increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer, The American Cancer Society does not currently make recommendations about taking it as a prevention measure against ovarian cancer.
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THE PILL REDUCES THE RISK OF DEVELOPING UTERINE CANCER
Taking the birth control pill decreases the number of ovulations, menstrual blood flow and frequency of periods. These effects help not only to reduce the risk of anemia and ovarian cancer but also the risk of uterine cancer. How? Uterine cancer is associated with high -- or in some cases, extreme -- estrogen levels. Women who have poly-cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), for example, have particularly high estrogen levels and therefore an increase in uterine cancer risk. “In general, the pill keeps the estrogen and progesterone levels steady, as opposed to the highs and lows of a natural cycle, and that lowers the risk,” says Dr. Kari Braaten.
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ANTIBIOTICS WON’T CHANGE THE PILL’S EFFECTIVENESS
A lot of people have been warned to double up on contraception when they take antibiotics. But for the most part, that’s a myth. “It’s only a very few, very old antibiotics that can interfere [with the effectiveness of the pill],” says Dr. Kari Braaten. Research has shown that rifampin may be one of these. “The common ones like penicillin, flagyll or a Z-Pak won’t do a thing,” she says. A 2011 Harvard study that included 43,000 women confirmed this. The study found that there was no difference in the effectives of oral birth control pill between women who took antibiotics and women who did not.
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YOU CAN SAFELY USE THE PILL TO SKIP YOUR PERIOD
If you want to skip your period, go for it. Just skip the sugar pills and start a new pack. “There’s no biological reason you need a menstrual cycle, unless you’re trying to get pregnant, of course,” said Jennifer Gunter, M.D., an OB/GYN in the San Francisco Bay Area. Plus, there are some added perks in taking the oral birth control pill continuously, namely: fewer periods, no monthly bloating, fewer headaches and less-severe menstrual cramps.
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THE PILL AND THE PATCH WON’T HAVE A MAJOR EFFECT ON YOUR WEIGHT
Contrary to popular belief, the pill and the patch don’t exactly lead to weight gain. This thinking started back when the first birth control pills (which had much higher doses of hormones) hit the market. Today’s pills offer lower doses, and according to a 2014 Cochrane review of 49 studies, there's no huge weight gain associated with taking the pill. However, the results from the studies were not strong enough to say that there was no effect at all on weight. There was just no major effect and women did not stop taking the pill because of any possible weight gain.
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THE PILL CAN MESS WITH YOUR SEX DRIVE
Although the effect is thought to be slight, the pill can influence libido in some women. But it’s not all bad news. A 2012 review in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that while some women experienced a decrease in sex drive, others felt an increase. Still, the majority of women studied reported no change at all to their sex drive.
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LONG-TERM USE OF THE PILL CAN INCREASE CERVICAL CANCER RISK
A 2011 review from the journal Gynecological Endocrinology looked at 28 studies and found that the relative risk of cervical cancer was slightly higher among women who used the pill over long periods, when compared with women who have never used the pill. Experts say the effect might be correlated with those women who are also infected with a high-risk strain of the HPV virus. Nonetheless, after weighing both the risks and benefits, The World Health Organization doesn’t oppose using oral birth control.
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IUDS ARE COMPLETELY SAFE, EVEN FOR TEENAGERS
The intrauterine device (IUD) is the most popular form of birth control, with approximately 150 million women using it worldwide. In the U.S., IUDs accounted for 10 percent of the prescribed contraception issued by doctors in 2012. A 2013 study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology said that IUDs are a safe option for young women as well. The researchers used medical records to find out whether teenage women using IUDs had more complications, including painful periods or failure. Teenagers were no more likely to have the device removed early when compared to older women, inferring the IUD doesn’t cause more complications in that age group. And serious complications resulting from the IUD, including ectopic pregnancy and pelvic inflammatory disease, occurred in less than one percent of women regardless of age.
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THE IUD IS THE BIRTH CONTROL OF CHOICE FOR OB/GYNS
According to a 2012 poll released by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, use of IUDs by female OB/GYNs is three times greater than that of the general public. Why? Easy. IUDs have fewer complications, are better at preventing pregnancy and don’t require you to remember to take a pill every day, said Dr. Jennifer Gunter. Also, despite what you may have heard, today’s IUDs do not cause infertility. What’s more, women have a greater chance of becoming pregnant immediately after stopping IUD use than those who have stopped use of the birth control pill.
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IUDS CAN PROTECT YOU FROM CERVICAL CANCER
In a 2011 review of 26 studies, researchers found that women who used the IUD slashed their risk for cervical cancer by about 50 percent. Researchers think that the placement of the IUD may stimulate an immune response that is helpful for fighting persistent HPV infections, the leading cause of cervical cancer, said Xavier Castellsague, M.D., a lead researcher on the study and director of the WHO/ICO Information Centre on HPV and Cervical Cancer in Barcelona, Spain.
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IUDS MAY ALSO BE A TREATMENT FOR ENDOMETRIAL CANCER
The treatment for endometrial cancer is almost always a complete hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus), which can be devastating for young women who want to have children. But a small 2010 study in the Annals of Oncology found that an IUD, along with an injection to inhibit estrogen, might be a viable treatment for women with early-stage endometrial cancer. Although it didn’t work for everyone, 27 of the 34 women followed were cancer-free after a year, and nine of those women went on to have successful pregnancies.
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COPPER IUDS CAN CAUSE HEAVY BLEEDING
Paraguard, a copper IUD, is a safe, long-term contraceptive implant. You can keep it in for up to 10 years, but it can lead to heavy bleeding and cramping in some women. Women who already have heavy periods or painful cramps may want to stick with oral contraceptives or a hormonal IUD instead.
Related: Can Certain Foods Help Menstrual Cramps?
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THERE’S AN IUD FOR WOMEN WHO HAVEN’T HAD CHILDREN
An IUD for women who haven’t had children is the latest thing to hit the birth control market. Called Skyla, the T-shaped device works the same as the only other hormonal IUD on the market, Mirena, except it's a bit smaller and releases half the dose of progestin. Women who haven’t given birth can experience more pain upon IUD insertion, so Skyla may offer some relief.
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HORMONAL IMPLANTS MAY INCREASE RISK FOR DIABETES
Overweight or obese women who use long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) containing progestin, like a hormonal IUD or the Implanon implant, may have an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, according to researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. Their six-month long study showed obese women using the implant had higher blood-glucose levels and insulin sensitivity, when compared with women using non-hormonal methods, like the copper IUD or condoms. The hormonal IUD also caused an increase, although it was much lower.
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CONDOMS CAN HELP PROTECT AGAINST HPV
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, condoms are a highly effective way to help protect against genital human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection, currently infecting 79 million Americans. HPV is responsible for genital warts, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis and cervical cancer, and it can also cause anal, vulva and vaginal cancer. Condoms are currently the only birth control method that also protects against HPV and other STDs.
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THE “PULL OUT METHOD” ISN'T FOOLPROOF
For every 100 couples that use withdrawal as their birth control method, commonly known as the “pull out method,” four will become pregnant if they ALWAYS do it correctly, and 27 will become pregnant if they DON’T ALWAYS do it correctly, according to a paper published in the June 2009 issue of Contraception magazine. The authors concluded that typical use of withdrawal leads to pregnancy 18 percent of the time, while typical use of condoms leads to pregnancy 17 percent of the time. In comparison, for every 100 women using the pill, about five will get pregnant each year. Those aren’t bad numbers for a free, all-natural birth control method with zero side effects. But remember, withdrawal won’t protect you from STDs, and couples rarely employ the withdrawal method 100-percent effectively. That means, if you plan on being sexually active, you're better off going with a more consistent, reliable form of birth control like the pill or an IUD.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have you ever been on birth control? Which form(s) have you used? Did you know any of these facts? Which ones surprised you the most? Have you learned anything else from your gynecologist or from your own research? Share you thoughts in the comments section below!
Related: Which Form of Birth Control Is Right for You?
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