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Busting the myths around the contraceptive pill

The combined contraceptive pill is one of the most popular methods of contraception in Ireland. It contains oestrogen and progesterone, two hormones that women produce naturally in their ovaries. When taken correctly, it is 99% effective.

It works by preventing ovaries releasing eggs each month. If no egg is released, then there is nothing to fertilise, preventing pregnancy. It can also be prescribed to treat painful or heavy periods, premenstrual syndrome and endometriosis. The pill is also sometimes prescribed for acne. There are, however, many myths about the pill. Here are some of the most common ones…

Myth 1: “The pill causes weight gain”

The myth that the pill makes you put on weight has been around since it was first introduced in the 1960s. This is because the first pill had lots of oestrogen. Oestrogen increases appetite and fluid retention, leading to weight gain. Nowadays, the pill has less oestrogen in it so this side effect shouldn’t appear. If you think you’ve gained weight after starting a new pill, wait three months to see if this effect passes before switching. 

Myth 2: “The pill causes infertility”

There is no truth to this at all. In fact, if you’re thinking about conceiving, you can start trying straight after you stop the pill. It’s recommended to start taking folic acid three months beforehand to reduce the risk of your baby developing spina bifida.

Myth 3: “The pill is entirely negative when it comes to cancer risks”

It is true that the pill can slightly increase your risk of developing breast or cervical cancer. Indeed, if you have a family history of these cancers, the pill may not be suitable for you. However, there is significant evidence to suggest that the longer you take the pill, the more you can reduce your risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. One study showed that for every five years a woman is on the pill, her risk of developing ovarian cancer is lowered by 20%.

Myth 4: “Women over the age of 35 can’t take the pill”

This again stems from older versions of the pill which contained high doses of oestrogen. These were associated with an increased risk of blood clots, particularly in women over 35. Modern versions of the pill do not pose such a risk and are safe for the majority of women over 35 to keep taking. Having a high body mass index (BMI) or being a smoker may pose some problems – as with any medication, each individual should discuss how suitable it is for them with their GP.

Myth 5: “Women should take a break from the pill”

Unless you suffer from particularly bad side effects, taking a break from the pill is not recommended. Once your body is used to it, the pill can actually mean better cycle control and reduced premenstrual symptoms. Taking a break from the pill also increases your risk of pregnancy.

To find out what contraceptive works for you, speak to your GP.

For more on fertility and maternal health, click here.