Hormonal contraceptives have been on the market for over fifty years and, while their formulations have changed, the basic mechanism of action has remained the same. During this time, numerous studies have been performed documenting side effects, some of which appear over time, some within weeks or months, but all can have a serious impact on health and quality of life. An effort was made to perform a series of comprehensive literature surveys to better understand immediate and long-term side effects of these agents. The results of this literature review uncovered a number of potential side effects, some of which are acknowledged and many of which are not noted in the prescribing information for these agents. Among the unacknowledged side effects are: an increased risk of HIV transmission for depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA), and for combination contraceptives breast cancer, cervical cancer, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, systemic lupus erythematosus, depression, mood disorders and suicides (especially among women twenty-five years of age and younger, in the first six months of use), multiple sclerosis, interstitial cystitis, female sexual dysfunction, osteoporotic bone fractures (especially for progesterone-only contraceptives), and fatty weight gain. Misleading prescribing information regarding cardiovascular and thrombotic risks are also noted. Women seeking birth control have a right to be informed and educated about risk avoidance through the use of effective nonhormonal methods like fertility awareness methods. In one case-that of DMPA-the increased risk of HIV acquisition has been conclusively demonstrated to be both real and unique to this drug. Considering the availability of numerous alternatives, there is no justification for the continued marketing of DMPA to the public.
Summary: We reviewed the effect of hormonal contraceptives on women's health. A number of potential side effects were noted including increased risks of breast cancer, cervical cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, cystitis, bone fractures, depression, mood disorders and suicides, fatty weight gain, and female sexual dysfunction. With the long-acting injectable contraceptives there is an increased risk of getting HIV. Misleading prescribing information regarding the risks of heart attacks, strokes and blood clotting problems were also noted. Women seeking birth control have a right to know about how to avoid these risks by using effective hormone-free Fertility Awareness Methods.
Keywords: Autoimmune disease; Cancer; Contraception; Fractures; Human immunodeficiency virus; Osteoporosis; Sexual dysfunction; Suicide; Thromboembolic disease; Weight gain.
© Catholic Medical Association 2021.