Hormonal contraception and the development of autoimmunity: A review of the literature

Linacre Q. 2017 Aug;84(3):275-295. doi: 10.1080/00243639.2017.1360065. Epub 2017 Aug 18.


Estrogens and progestins are known to have profound effects on the immune system and may modulate the susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. A comprehensive literature search was carried out using PubMed for any of 153 autoimmune disease terms and the terms contraception, contraceptive, or their chemical components with limits of Humans + Title or Abstract. Over 1,800 titles were returned and scanned, 352 papers retrieved and reviewed in depth and an additional 70 papers retrieved from the bibliographies. Based on this review, substantial evidence exists linking the use of combined oral contraceptives to a lower incidence of hyperthyroidism, an increase in multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, and interstitial cystitis. Progesterone only contraceptives are linked to progesterone dermatitis and in one large developing world concurrent cohort study are associated with increases in arthropathies and related disorders, eczema and contact dermatitis, pruritis and related conditions, alopecia, acne, and urticaria. Hormonal contraceptives modulate the immune system and may influence the susceptibility to autoimmune diseases with significant increases in risk for several autoimmune diseases.

Summary: Hormonal contraceptives (HCs), such as the "pill," Norplant, and vaginal rings, are very potent hormones that have effects on the immune system, which is made up of white blood cells and lymph nodes and normally defends the body against invading bacteria, viruses and parasites. This review looked at the association of HC use to the development of autoimmune diseases, where the immune system turns against the body and causes damage to organs. There is good evidence that HC use is associated with an increased risk of several serious autoimmune diseases such as Crohn's disease (which causes inflammation of the bowels), Lupus (which causes inflammation in many organs), and interstitial cystitis (which causes inflammation in the bladder). Several other rarer autoimmune diseases are also linked to HC use. People contemplating the use of HCs should be informed of these risks.

Keywords: Autoimmune disease; Autoimmunity; Hormonal contraceptives; Oral contraceptive pills; Progesterone only contraceptives.