Hepatobiliary complications of oral contraceptives

J Gen Intern Med. Mar-Apr 1992;7(2):199-209. doi: 10.1007/BF02598014.


Complications secondary to the use of oral contraceptive agents are rare. Hepatobiliary complications, while often dramatic in presentation, occur infrequently. In a patient without predisposing conditions to complications, the benefits achieved with estrogen/progesterone products outweigh the risks. Those conditions that would absolutely and relatively contraindicate the use of oral contraceptives are listed in Table 4. Patients with a past history of liver disease in whom liver function tests have returned to normal may tolerate the introduction of oral contraceptives. They need to be monitored closely for adverse reactions. Patients who have experienced cholestatic jaundice of pregnancy should avoid all contraceptives because of a high risk of disease recurrence. Women whose first-degree relatives have experienced cholestasis of pregnancy or oral contraceptive-induced cholestasis may be at increased risk and should be closely monitored while taking birth-control pills. Women with current or previous benign or malignant hepatic tumors should not take oral contraceptives. Active hepatitis is an absolute contraindication to using birth control pills, although patients with a past history of hepatitis and no evidence of active disease can have a trial of these drugs with close follow-up. A final group of women who should avoid oral contraceptives is those with familial defects of biliary excretion, including the Dubin-Johnson syndrome, Rotor's syndrome, and benign intrahepatic recurrent cholestasis. Dubin-Johnson syndrome is often asymptomatic and may manifest only during pregnancy or during the use of oral contraceptives. The reduction in hepatic excretory function induced by the sex steroids can transform the mild hyperbilirubinemia into frank jaundice. Oral contraceptive agents are the most widely used reversible means of birth control currently available. Fortunately, the complications associated with these drugs are infrequent and may be decreasing due to lower-dose products. Complications still occur, however, and need to be recognized by the general internist as medication-induced problems so the offending drugs can be discontinued and appropriate treatment and follow-up initiated. In addition, patients at risk for the development of complications need to be recognized and advised prior to the introduction of oral contraceptives.

PIP: A 15-year old Black teenager came to a clinic at the University of Alabama's School of Medicine in Tuscaloosa requesting oral contraceptives (OCs). The physical examination indicated that she was in good health and the physician prescribed an OC (1 mg norethindrone and .035 mg ethinyl estradiol). 21 months later she returned complaining of yellow eyes for 3 weeks. The oral mucosa was also jaundiced. She had considerably high levels of bilirubin and alkaline phosphatase. She had no hepatitis virus antibodies. 5 months later she returned for the physical examination required to renew the OC prescription. She did not have jaundice at this time. 10 months later she complained of malaise and muscular pain. Her alkaline phosphatase level was high, but her bilirubin level was normal. She had mild hepatosplenomegaly without focal defects. After reviewing her medical records, the physician diagnosed intrahepatic cholestasis and discontinued her OC prescription. Liver function tests were normal within 3 months. 14 months later, she returned complaining of malaise and reported taking OCs obtained at another clinic 3 months earlier. The physician advised her about the complications of OCs and about other contraceptive methods. The same physician also examined a 32-year-old Black woman who had intermittent epigastric and right-upper quadrant abdominal pain for 2 weeks. Eating worsened the pain, which lasted for up to 15 minutes. She had used an OC for 12 years. Ultrasound revealed a 4.2 cm hypoechoic mass in the left upper lobe of the liver. The physician discontinued the OCs. The tumor regressed over 12 months. Active liver disease is a contraindication to OC use. Women who had cholestatic jaundice while pregnant or have first degree relatives with cholestatic jaundice of pregnancy should not use OCs. Physicians may introduce OCs to closely monitored women with a history of liver disease whose liver function tests are normal. Women with a family history of biliary excretion defects should not use OCs.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biliary Tract Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / chemically induced
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury*
  • Cholelithiasis / chemically induced
  • Cholestasis / chemically induced
  • Contraceptives, Oral / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Liver / blood supply
  • Liver Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Risk Factors
  • Vascular Diseases / chemically induced


  • Contraceptives, Oral