Millions of women take the Pill every day, it’s a quick an easy form of contraception that can do more than just prevent pregnancy. Many take it because it can help keep conditions like acne and endometriosis at bay.
The Pill has been available to women in Australia since 1961 and has become one of the nation’s most popular forms of contraception. In 2015 it was estimated that 45.5% of Australian women were taking the Pill, according to Roy Morgan Research.
Most birth control pills are a combined pill, using artificial versions of the female sex hormones progesterone and oestrogen. It works by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg each month – the process called ovulation, that’s vital when it comes to baby making. It also thickens the mucus at the neck of the womb to make it harder for sperm to get through and it thins the lining of the womb so there is less chance of a fertilised egg implanting.
If it is used correctly it is more than 99 percent effective at stopping unwanted pregnancies. But just like any medication, there are side effects if you take it long term…
Taking the Pill could increase your risk of breast cancer – more than experts first thought. A study published last year found women who take it have much higher hormone levels than those who don’t. And evidence suggests the risk of breast cancer increases with exposure to hormones, according to experts at the University of Michigan. But while there are concerns, Cancer Research states just one per cent of breast cancers are actually linked to the Pill.
Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and clinical director of Patient.info said while there is a risk, there are other lifestyle factors that are higher risk when it comes to breast cancer. “We think probably about one per cent of breast cancers are caused by the combined Pill,” she told The Sun.
“In contrast probably six to eight per cent of breast cancers are down to excess alcohol.”And you are 50 per cent more likely to get breast cancer if you are overweight. So, by comparison to being overweight or drinking too much alcohol, your risk of breast cancer is very low.”
“Most women are going to be taking the Pill when they are under 30, when you stop taking it your risk drops and when you’ve stopped taking it for 10 years your risk is back to what it would have been if you never took it.
“Most women who get breast cancer get it over the age of 50. So basically you do increase your risk, but it’s a small risk, and by the time you get to the age where your risk is much bigger then it probably doesn’t apply to you because you are probably off the Pill.”
Ever wondered why your doctor takes your blood pressure every time you get your prescription for the Pill renewed? It’s because it can increase your risk of a deadly blood clot – but there’s no cause to panic just yet. “One of the big issues is the risk of a clot on the leg or the lung, which is increased by any pills in comparison to not taking the Pill at all,” Sarah said.
“How big that increased risk is depends on two things; first is the dose of oestrogen, some are higher than others; the second is the type of progesterone that is used. For instance, you have a 50 to 80 per cent higher risk with the newer contraceptive, or third generation pills, compared to the second generation ones.
“However, we need to put that into perspective. Even at the highest risk, the risk is still significantly lower than the risk of having a clot on the leg or lung when you are pregnant. But, even without the Pill, every woman is at some risk of developing a blood clot each year.
So what is the likelihood that you will suffer a clot if you take the Pill? “To put it into perspective, if you’re not taking anything it’s five in 100,000 women will have a clot every year,” Sarah added. “With a second generation Pill, like Microgynon, about 15 in 100,000 women will have a clot. “With third generation Pills, like Marvelon and Cilest, 30 in 100,000 women will have a clot and in pregnancy 60 in 100,000 women will have a clot.”
As the Pill can increase our natural levels of hormones, it can increase our risk of cancers like cervical cancer. Your risk of developing this disease does increase the longer you take the Pill – but there could be other factors at play.
“If you take it for more than five years you’re about twice as likely to get cervical cancer,” Sarah said. “However, what the thinking is, we know that virtually all cervical cancer is down to the HPV virus, which is a sexually transmitted infection that most women don’t show any symptoms of.
“So we think, if you are on the Pill, you aren’t using condoms – so that might explain the higher link. The other theory is, that you get HPV anyway but the Pill makes you less likely to be able to get rid of it.”
A stroke is a life-threatening brain attack, which occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off – without blood, the cells in your brain can be killed or suffer damage. There are two main types of stroke. An ischaemic stroke is the most common, accounting for 85 per cent of all cases, and is caused by a blockage cutting off the blood supply to the brain.
A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by bleeding in or around the brain, when a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts. As discussed above, an increased risk of blood clots can increase your risk of stroke. But if you get migraines then you are even more at risk.
“If you get certain kinds of migraines you are more likely to have a stroke,” Sarah said. “If you have migraine with aura, in other words where one side of the body gets flashing lights or goes numb, then you should not take the Pill.
“The reason why is not known, but migraines are thought to be caused by temporary disruption to nerve signals and blood vessels in the brain. So, the Pill could be causing issues with your blood flow.
So far, this all sounds a bit scary for those of you taking the Pill. But, rest assured, your risk of all these problems is relatively low – your doctor wouldn’t be prescribing something that is dangerous for you. As well as the side effects, there is also evidence to suggest taking the Pill can actually PROTECT you, against conditions like endometriosis, acne and PMS.
It also reduces your risk of some diseases…
Womb and ovarian cancer – The hormones in the Pill can help protect your womb and ovaries from developing abnormal cells. “It reduces your risk of getting cancer of the womb lining and of the ovaries,” Sarah said. “The longer you take it for the more protection you get, and that protection probably lasts for longer than 10 years after you stop taking it. It’s likely down to the levels of hormones you are taking.”
If you have more oestrogen than progesterone, so women with polycystic ovary syndrome, then you increase your risk of womb cancer.”What your body should be doing is shedding your womb lining regularly when you have your periods, and not allowing it to grow too much. The combined oral contraceptive Pill gives you a balanced amount of hormones to control this.”
Bowel cancer – According to a recent study from the University of Aberdeen, which followed 46,000 women for 44 years, taking the Pill can reduce your risk of bowel cancer.”With all these things it’s often very difficult to find out the cause and effect,” Sarah said.”But there is fairly new research that suggests the combined oral contraceptive Pill lowers a woman’s risk of bowel cancer by 20 per cent.”
“And the protection lasts for over 30 years, the longer you take it for the greater the protection.” Bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer or colorectal cancer, is the second deadliest cancer in Australia, after lung cancer.
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