Combined hormonal contraceptives: prescribing patterns, compliance, and benefits versus risks

Ther Adv Drug Saf. 2014 Oct;5(5):201-13. doi: 10.1177/2042098614548857.


Combined hormonal contraceptives [combined oral contraceptives (COCs)] have been available for over 50 years and the impact of this invention may not be overestimated. Today over 100 million women are current users and in Western Europe and the United States approximately 80% of women of fertile ages can be considered as ever-users. Over the years several drawbacks have been identified and media alarms on risks are frequently presented, resulting in suboptimal compliance and low compliance and continuation rates. Poor compliance and discontinuation is a big problem and is not generally identified by prescribers. During ideal use COCs offer very good protection against unwanted pregnancies, however there is a big problem with compliance and continuation and thus the 'real-life' efficacy is much lower. Reasons for poor compliance include side effects and fear of side effects and it is crucial that the prescriber gives the individual woman thorough and balanced information on the benefits and risks. Most well known is the increased risk of venous thromboembolism, but also an elevated risk of arterial thrombosis and several types of cancer has been reported. The risk estimates are low but according to the large number of users a substantial number of extra cases will occur. However, use of COCs also offers several additional health benefits with significant impact on morbidity and quality of life. COC use is associated with a substantial decrease in the risk of ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer and colorectal cancer. Moreover, COCs are a major option of treatment for women suffering from heavy menstrual bleeding and dysmenorrhea as well as hirsutism and acne vulgaris. The net effect of the additional health effects of COC- use may very well be positive, i.e. a slight increase in life expectancy.

Keywords: benefits; combined hormonal contraceptives; compliance; side effects.

Publication types

  • Review