In clinic conversations with young women, I am always surprised by the amount of misinformation out there on oral contraceptives—aka birth control pills.
So let’s clear some things up. Here are the 10 most common myths I hear about birth control pills, and the facts that contradict them.
- Myth 1: “They will make me gain weight.” Many women believe that oral birth control causes weight gain. Please know that with the lower dose pills we currently prescribe, weight gain is not a consistent finding. Several studies have confirmed that baseline weight, percent fat, percent water, and waist-to-hip ratio did not change significantly after six cycles of birth control pill use, in several large studies.
- Myth 2: “They will affect my fertility, making it harder for me to get pregnant later.” When you discontinue your birth control pill it may be several months before your normal cycle returns, but there is no increased risk of infertility. To the contrary, the risk of infertility may be reduced in women who have taken birth control pills.
- Myth 3: “They cause breast cancer.” Most studies have not demonstrated an association between use of oral contraceptives and the risk of breast cancer later in life. That risk is also not increased in those with a family history of breast cancer.
- Myth 4: “They cause ovarian cancer.” No—and it’s actually the opposite. Studies have consistently shown that prolonged use of oral contraceptive pills reduces the risk of ovarian cancer. In fact, you may still see reduced risk for 30 years after stopping birth control pills.
- Myth 5: “They cause uterine (endometrial) cancer.” Again, it’s the opposite. The use of oral contraceptive pills decreases the risk of endometrial cancer. The protective effect of oral contraceptives persists for at least 15 years after you stop taking them. Bonus.
- Myth 6: “I’m too old to take them.” There are some folks who shouldn’t take them after age 35 or 40, like smokers, and those with high blood pressure or migraine headache with aura, but for others it’s fine. The age limit was lifted for healthy non-smoking women in 1989. Most women can take them safely up until menopause if needed.
- Myth 7: “Taking pills will affect my sex drive.” Studies on the effect of estrogen-progestin birth control (the most common kind) on female sexuality is conflicting. Although birth control pills suppress testosterone, there is no definitive data that they have a negative impact on libido (sexual desire).
- Myth 8: “They will make my fibroids grow.” Use of low-dose oral birth control does not cause fibroids to grow. Taking birth control pills is not a problem in women with fibroids.
- Myth 9: “My friend took them every day and still got pregnant.” Oral contraceptives are a very reliable form of contraception, with a failure rate of 0.1 percent—1 in 1000—of those who take them as directed. Due to problems with compliance, the actual failure rate of birth control pills is 2, or 2 in 100. Take them every day.
- Myth 10: “They will raise my cholesterol.” The effect of birth control on cholesterol does depend somewhat on which pill you take. In general, triglycerides may increase slightly but there will be no consistent changes in high-density (HDL) or low-density (LDL) lipoprotein cholesterol concentrations.