Can birth control make you gain weight? Or raise cancer risk? Here’s what the science says.
The Pill holds the title for the most common method of birth control for women. Four out of five sexually active women have used the pill, according to the CDC, a statistic that has remained constant for nearly half a century.
Despite the Pill’s popularity, there are still many questions and misconceptions about there about its side effects and impact on women’s health. Here are some common myths that don’t actually hold up to science, according to ob-gyn and maternal fetal medicine specialist Kecia Gaither, MD.
MYTH: Birth control pills make you gain weight.
REALITY: This might be the most feared side effect of taking the Pill, but it’s actually a myth. “The hormones in birth control pills could cause fluid retention, which could make you feel bloated,” says Dr. Gaither, “but it’s not permanent weight gain.”
MYTH: Birth control pills make it harder to get pregnant later.
REALITY: If you know someone who forgot to take a pill or two and found themselves pregnant later that month, you’ll quickly realize this one is a myth. (And FYI, here’s what to do if you miss a birth control pill.) The truth is, the Pill will not sterilize you; instead, it raises your hormone levels to imitate pregnancy—and the body can’t get pregnant when it thinks it’s already pregnant. All reversible birth control methods (that is, everything other than actually “getting your tubes tied”) only protect against pregnancy while you are taking them, and you’ll be able to get pregnant pretty much as soon as you quit your birth control.
MYTH: Women over 35 shouldn’t take birth control pills.
REALITY: This myth stems from an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer in older women, so doctors were hesitant about giving women over age 35 the extra dosage of estrogen. But the fear is usually unnecessary. A study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine demonstrated that women ages 35-50 who took oral contraceptives were not at a higher risk of these diseases; in fact, taking the Pill might even benefit some women, such as those with a family history of endometrial or ovarian cancer. One caveat: doctors still do not recommend birth control pills for women over 35 who smoke, have high blood pressure, or have a history of heart disease. Considering 29 percent of pregnancies for women aged 35 to 39 are unplanned (and 38 percent for women over 40), believing this myth could be, well, an accident.
MYTH: Emergency contraception is the same thing as abortion.
REALITY: An abortion occurs after a fertilized egg has already implanted on the lining of the uterus, which takes five to seven days after fertilization. Emergency contraception (like the “morning-after pill”) only takes effect during that week-long window, before the egg implants. Here’s how it works: Sperm can hang out inside the uterus for up to six days, and if you ovulate (you know, release an egg) during that time, fertilization may occur. Most emergency contraceptives work by delaying the ovulation, so there’s no egg for the sperm to fertilize. In other words, it’s just another way to prevent pregnancy, not a method of ending a pregnancy that’s already happened.
MYTH: Antibiotics make birth control pills less effective.
REALITY: The antibiotics prescribed for common issues like acne, sore throat, UTIs, or vaginal infections will not mess up your hormonal birth control (meaning the Pill, patch, or ring). Learn more about antibiotics and birth control here.
- MYTH: Birth control pills can cause cancer.
REALITY: Being one of the most commonly prescribed medications, birth control pills have been studied up and down for possible long-term effects. Not only have no studies found a proven risk of cancer, but researchers now say that the pill can actually reduce your risk of ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, and uterine cancer. “That’s probably because women who take the pill ovulate fewer times than women who don’t take the pill,” says Dr. Gaither. “The more times you ovulate over your lifetime, the more hormones you’re exposed to.”
Dr. Gaither, an ob-gyn and maternal fetal medicine specialist, is director of perinatal services at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, a member of NYC Health + Hospitals System in Bronx, New York.
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Birth control pills contain different
combinations of the hormones estrogen and
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progestin to prevent pregnancy, but the
pill has myths you need to be aware of.
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It's a myth that the pill makes
you gain a lot of weight.
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This may be one of the most feared
side effects of birth control and
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one that keeps many women from
wanting to take birth control.
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The hormones in birth control
pills could cause fluid retention,
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which could make you feel bloated,
but it's not permanent weight gain.
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It's a myth that being on the pill
can make it harder to get
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pregnant in the future.
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All reversible birth control
methods will help prevent pregnancy
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while you're using them, but
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none have long lasting effects on your
ability to get pregnant when you stop.
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That's why people who use the pill that
accidentally forget to take it for
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a few days can get pregnant that month.
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It's a myth that women over
35 shouldn't take the pill.
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29% of pregnancies in women 35 to 39
in the United States are unplanned,
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as are 38% of pregnancies in women 40 and
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Healthy women over 35 can safely use oral
contraception, as long as they don't
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smoke, have normal blood pressure, and
have no history of cardiovascular disease.
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In fact you can keep
using it until age 50.
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It's a myth that emergency contraception
is the same thing as abortion.
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Emergency contraceptive pills
work before pregnancy begins.
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Pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg
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implants in the lining
of a woman's uterus.
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Implantation begins five to seven
days after sperm fertilizes the egg.
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Emergency contraception will not
work if a woman is already pregnant.
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Emergency contraception works by delaying,
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which is release of your egg.
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It's a myth that antibiotics
mess with your birth control.
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Most antibiotics do not make the pill,
patch, or ring less effective.
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That includes antibiotics commonly
prescribed for acne, or sore throat,
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or urinary tract infection,
or a vaginal infection.
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It's a myth that birth control
pills can cause cancer.
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Taking the pill can actually cut
your risk of ovarian cancer, and
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endometrial or uterine cancer.
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That's probably because women
who take the pill ovulate
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fewer times than women
who don't take the pill.
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The more times you ovulate
over your lifetime,
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the more hormones you're exposed to.
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The pill may slightly raise your
breast and cervical cancer risk but
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this slight increase is only temporary.
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Antibiotics and birth control pill interactions: Fact or fallacy? Drugs.com, 2015. (Accessed on September 25, 2017 at https://www.drugs.com/article/antibiotics-and-birth-control.html.)
Birth control and infertility: Does using birth control hurt my chances of getting pregnant later? Washington, D.C.: Bedsider, 2017. (Accessed on September 25, 2017 at https://www.bedsider.org/features/76-birth-control-and-infertility-does-using-birth-control-hurt-my-chances-of-getting-pregnant-later.)
Emergency contraception. New York, NY: Planned Parenthood. (Accessed on September 25, 2017 at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/morning-after-pill-emergency-contraception/which-kind-emergency-contraception-should-i-use.)
Daniels K, Mosher WD, Jones J. Contraceptive methods women have ever used: United States, 1982-2010 [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2013 [cited 2017 Sept 25]. Report No.: 62. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr062.pdf
Gaining weight: Is it birth control? Washington, DC: Bedsider, 2014. (Accessed on September 18, 2017 at https://www.bedsider.org/features/328-gaining-weight-is-it-the-birth-control.)
Godfrey EM, Chin NP, Fielding SL, Fiscella K, Dozier A. Contraceptive methods and use by women aged 35 and over: A qualitative study of perspectives. BMC Women’s Health. 2011;11(5). Available from: https://bmcwomenshealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6874-11-5.
Lindh I, Ellstrom AA, and Milsom I. The long-term influence of combined oral contraceptives on body weight. Hum Reprod. 2011 Jul;26(7):1917-24.
Stenchever MA. Risks of oral contraceptive use in women over 35. J Reprod Med. 1993 Dec;38(12 Suppl):1030-5.
Which medications can mess with birth control? Washington, D.C.: Bedsider, 2017. (Accessed on September 25, 2017 at https://www.bedsider.org/features/294-which-medications-can-mess-with-birth-control.)