Candy wrapped in pink and white paper, red hearts plastered everywhere and Cupid holding his arrow are just a few signs that the holiday of love, Valentine’s Day, is just around the corner.
What better time to think about birth control, says University of Cincinnati fertility expert and contraceptive researcher Michael Thomas, MD.
There are many myths and misconceptions about birth control, says Dr. Thomas, associate professor and director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility.
“Women need to be educated about birth control pills so they can make a decision on oral contraceptives based on fact and not misinformation,” says Dr. Thomas.
Here’s what Dr. Thomas says you should know about oral contraceptives.
Myth: All birth control pills are the same.
Fact: Combination birth control pills contain two types of hormones, estrogen and progestin. Most pills contain the same estrogen—ethinyl estradiol—but many brands use different types of progestin. The progestin in some birth control pills can cause unpleasant side effects in some women, such as breast swelling and tenderness, acne and fluid retention. Your health-care provider can help you determine the best birth control pill for you.
Myth: Birth control pills protect you from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Fact: The pill doesn’t offer any protection against STDs. The best way to reduce the risk of HIV or other STDs is through consistent and correct use of latex condoms or abstinence.
Myth: All birth control pills are effective for treating acne.
Fact: Currently only one birth control pill (Ortho Tri-Cyclen) has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat moderate acne. However, most of the other pills on the market have the same benefit.
Myth: Birth control pills can decrease a woman’s libido.
Fact: Actually, this one is true for some women. A recent study found that women on birth control pills have an increased level of a hormone called SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin). A higher level of this hormone can reduce sex drive because it causes the active testosterone level to drop in the body. However, not all women experience a lack of sexual desire when this happens. If this is something you experience, talk to your health-care provider. There are numerous brands of birth control pills on the market with different levels of hormones. Your health-care provider can help find the right one for you.
Myth: Birth control pills cause cancer.
Fact: Birth control pills may actually decrease the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. In fact, taking birth control pills for one year decreases the risk of these cancers by up to 50 percent for 10 years after women stop taking the pill. The longer a woman takes the pill, the longer the protective effect seems to last.
Myth: Birth control pills cause menstrual cycles to cease.
Fact: The opposite is true—many women are actually prescribed birth control pills by their physician to help regulate their cycles. Occasionally, a hormonal disorder may occur spontaneously while a woman is on the pill, but the pill is not the cause.
Birth control pills may also help reduce menstrual cramps and lighten blood flow.
Myth: Women should “take a break” from their birth control pills.
Fact: Research does not show women who are healthy and nonsmokers benefit from taking a break from the pill. More women are actually taking the pill and staying on it longer. Stopping the pill without proper back-up protection can lead to an undesired pregnancy. Discuss the duration of how long you should take the pill with your health-care professional.
Myth: You should prevent pregnancy for three to six months after you stop taking birth control pills.
Fact: There may be multiple ovulations the first cycle after you stop taking the pill because the ovaries are “waking up.” Couples who want to avoid the risk of multiple births should wait one cycle after the woman has stopped taking the pill to become pregnant.
Myth: Birth control pills cause birth defects.
Fact: Birth defects have not been associated with taking a modern, low-dose birth control pill before pregnancy. The chances of getting pregnant while taking the pill as directed (ideally, at the same time every day, without missing a dose, to maintain a high level of efficacy) are very low.
Dr. Thomas cautions that some women should avoid taking birth control pills. “Women who have had blood clots, certain cancers, a history of heart attack or a stroke, or those who are or may be pregnant should not take the pill. There is an increased risk of side effects for these women.”
Dr. Thomas is a physician with UC’s Center for Reproductive Health, which has expertise in infertility, menopause and endocrinological disorders. Established in 1988, it’s the only comprehensive patient care and research unit focused on women’s health in the Cincinnati area.
UC Health Line contains timely health information and is distributed every Tuesday by the UC Academic Health Center public relations and communications department.