More than 60 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved oral medications to help prevent pregnancy. Since then, millions of women have taken different versions of “the pill.” Despite its long history, there are still a lot of myths surrounding oral contraceptives.
“Birth control pills have come a long way since they came out in the 1960s. Today’s pills have much lower doses of hormones, which reduces potential side effects,” said Jennifer Hofmeister, an OB/GYN physician assistant at Banner Health in Loveland, CO. Hofmeister helped us get to the truth about oral contraceptives.
Myth 1: The pill makes you gain weight.
Fact: Research has found that some women lose weight when they take the pill while others gain. Everyone’s body reacts differently. Sometimes, women gain weight in the first month or two of taking the pill, and then their weight returns to normal. With proper diet and exercise, you can expect your weight to stay generally the same while you take birth control pills.
“Although studies don’t prove that birth control pills cause weight gain, if you notice a significant weight gain after starting birth control, you should discuss this with your health care provider,” Hofmeister said.
Myth 2: Starting the pill too early will damage your reproductive organs or cause infertility.
Fact: Starting birth control pills at a young age, even in girls approaching puberty, doesn’t affect the development of sexual characteristics, sexual function or fertility.
Girls and young women may start the pill for reasons unrelated to birth control. For example, they may take oral contraceptives to control acne or regulate their menstrual periods. Taking birth control pills also doesn’t make girls more likely to become sexually active.
Myth 3: The pill can cause congenital disabilities in babies.
Fact: Birth control pills are about 99% effective if taken perfectly, and about 93% effective in reality. That’s because women can forget to take them, fail to bring them when they travel or don’t fill their prescriptions on time. So, sometimes, women get pregnant when they are taking the pill. If that happens, there’s no evidence that oral contraceptives affect the baby.
In the past, people worried that progesterone, a hormone contained in some birth control pills, might affect fetuses, but researchers never found a connection. Once you find out you’re pregnant, you should stop taking birth control pills, but if you aren’t aware of the pregnancy for a while and keep taking them, there’s no harm to the baby.
Myth 4: All birth control pills are the same.
Fact: There are two categories of birth control pills and different mixes of medications within those categories. The most common type, called combination birth control pills, contains a mix of estradiol and progesterone with varying amounts of each. The variation is what causes different reactions and side effects. If your doctor needs to adjust your dose of birth control, they will change the amounts of one or both medications.
The second category is progesterone-only pills, also called the mini-pill. Any woman can take the mini pill, but doctors typically prescribe it for women who are breastfeeding or those that cannot or prefer not to take estrogen. With the mini pill, you need to be careful to take it at the same time every day.
Different types of pills also affect how often you have your period. In the past, pill packs had 21 days of treatment and seven days of placebos or inactive pills, where you would have your period. Some pills now have shorter placebo intervals, and some give you longer treatment times, so you don’t have periods as often.
Myth 5: The pill doesn’t work as well if you are overweight.
Fact: There’s minimal, conflicting evidence that standard-dose birth control pills are less effective in women with higher body mass indexes (BMIs). Obese women have a higher risk of blood clots in the veins compared to normal-weight women. And obese women may have more breakthrough bleeding on low-dose birth control pills.
Myth 6: The pill is only for contraception.
Fact: Birth control pills were initially developed for contraception, but they provide many other benefits:
- Regulating menstruation in women who have irregular periods
- Decreasing menstrual pain, especially in younger women and women who have endometriosis
- Reducing blood loss in women with heavy periods
- Treating premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Suppressing hair growth in women with excessive body and facial hair
- Treating acne
Myth 7: The pill can cause cancer.
Fact: Using combination birth control pills before becoming pregnant for the first time does slightly increase your risk for breast cancer. However, many other factors play into your breast cancer risk. And, using birth control pills decreases the risk of ovarian and uterine cancers. You can talk to your doctor about your risk for cancer and come up with a contraception method that’s right for you.
Myth 8: The pill is the best option for preventing pregnancy.
Fact: Birth control pills are only one of many contraceptive options. “The main drawback is the need to take them at the same time every day. Many women do not consistently remember to take daily pills, and longer-acting contraception may be more effective,” Hofmeister said. You can talk to your health care provider about the pros and cons of different types of birth control and choose the one that’s best for you.
The bottom line
Birth control pills have been around for a long time, and they are a safe, effective form of family planning for many women. Plus, they can treat other health conditions.
Need help deciding what form of birth control is right for you?
Schedule an appointment with a gynecologist near you.