- Hormonal birth control options do not seem to be linked with an increased risk of serious health issues in most women.
- Researchers looked at 58 meta-analyses for those conclusions.
- Experts say the findings are reassuring.
Despite repeated evidence that hormonal birth control is largely safe for women to use, concerns still persist about whether these medications are linked to a slew of serious and dangerous health outcomes. Now, a large scientific review has found that taking hormonal birth control does not seem to be linked to increased cardiovascular risk, cancer risk, and other major negative health risks.
The umbrella review, which was published in JAMA Network Open, looked at data from 58 meta-analyses of randomized clinical trials and cohort studies that analyzed 156 links between the use of hormonal birth control and poor health outcomes in women.
The researchers found that there were “no associations with adverse outcomes, including cardiovascular and cancer risk” in women that took hormonal birth control that were supported by high-quality evidence. And they found that all existing risks associated with birth control—like blood clotting—remained the same.
In good news, the review showed that using an IUD that releases levonorgestrel helped reduce endometrial polyps, usually noncancerous growths attached to the inner wall of the womb.
“The results of this umbrella review supported preexisting understandings of the risks and benefits associated with hormonal contraceptive use,” the researchers concluded. “Overall, the associations between hormonal contraceptive use and cardiovascular risk, cancer risk, and other major adverse health outcomes were not supported by high-quality evidence.”
Hormonal Birth Control Still Carries Some Risk
Hormonal birth control, which includes the pill, the patch, the ring, and some IUDs, contains some form of hormones to try to help prevent pregnancy. The most popular types of hormonal birth control are combined hormonal birth control methods, which contain estrogen and progesterone.
Combined hormonal birth control methods release estrogen and progestin (the synthetic form of progesterone) into the body. They mainly prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation, but they also thicken mucus in the cervix to make it harder for sperm to enter the uterus and thin the lining of the uterus.
Combined hormonal birth control methods are considered safe for most women, but past research has found that they do come with a slightly increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), heart attack, and stroke.
The risk is higher in certain women, including those who are older than 35 years who smoke more than 15 cigarettes a day or women with several risk factors for heart disease, like:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- A history of stroke
- Heart attack
- History of migraine headaches with aura
What This Means For You
Hormonal contraceptives are generally considered a safe birth control option for women. However, everyone’s risk factors are different. Talk to a healthcare provider about your personal medical history before using a new birth control method.
Experts Say the Findings Are Reassuring
“We’ve known for years that combination hormonal contraceptives are really quite safe and good,” Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, told Verywell.
The biggest thing women have to look out for, she said, is smoking while taking oral contraceptives, which, “is bad for the heart and blood clots, particularly over the age of 35,” Minkin said. But, she added, “for most other folks, there are a lot of benefits.”
Those include helping to prevent heavy periods and intense cramps, along with pregnancy prevention, Minkin said. In fact, combined hormonal contraceptives actually decrease the risk of ovarian cancer by up to 50%, Minkin pointed out.
Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, told Verywell that she found the study results very reassuring. “Sometimes in different clinical trials, the outcomes and conclusions can be unclear or even contradictory,” she said. “This review looked at a pattern that emerged in many, many studies and made the proper conclusions.”
Wider said the latest analysis “adds to and underscores the preexisting conclusions about the pros and cons of birth control use. It also offers very high-quality evidence that hormonal contraception is not directly linked to cancer, heart disease, and other major negative health outcomes.”
But Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, told Verywell that a woman’s medical history matters when it comes to hormonal birth control and health risk. “Each person is unique, and not every woman’s risk factors are the same,” she said.
Wider agrees. “Everyone has a different personal and family history of disease,” she said. “For example, if a person has a clotting disorder, hormonal birth control will not be a viable option. It is vital that every woman discuss her own individual risk with her healthcare provider.”