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Are There Health Benefits To Taking The Pill?

Posted in Personal Health 26 Nov, 2015

There are many contraception choices out there, and although the oral contraceptive pill is the most commonly used, not every woman has taken it.

There are some health benefits associated with taking the pill, such as the reduced risk of ovarian cancer. So is it worth taking as a precaution at some point in your life, as a kind of ovarian shield? Let's look at the side effects, risks and benefits.

How does the pill work?

The pill was the first contraceptive that allowed women to take control of their fertility. It ought to be celebrated for that fact alone. Since the 1960s, the pill has developed into many brands, mini-pills and evolved into a medication as well as a contraceptive. Some doctors prescribe it to reduce heavy periods, for example.

There are two types:

  • The combined pill is made from oestrogen and progesterone hormones. It works by sending your ovaries to sleep, and thickening the womb lining so sperm can't get through. It's 99% effective against pregnancy, but not against STIs. Only a condom protects against those.
  • The mini pill contains only progesterone, so a monthly bleed will occur. It's not as popular and so most research is based on the combined pill.

Side effects of the pill

As with all medication, there are reported side effects. Not every woman will experience these but it's worth knowing about them. They are:

  • Nausea
  • Weight gain (usually down to water retention)
  • Breast tenderness
  • Headaches
  • Slight 'spotting' of blood between periods

You can try another type of pill if you experience side effects, as they are all slightly different.

Risks of the pill

Some studies have shown that there is a slight increase in the risk of cervical cancer, although this could be because women who take the pill are more likely to have sex without condoms and are therefore more at risk of HPV, which is known to cause cervical cancer.

Its also thought there is a slight increase in breast cancer risk, and it can increase blood pressure.

Benefits of the pill

Research into benefits of the pill includes a 2007 study, which indicated that the risk of death due to any cause was lower in women who had taken the pill.

It's also thought to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, uterine cancer and bowel cancer. A study in 1992 found that the longer women used the pill, the more protected they were against ovarian cancer. For example 10-12% decreased risk after one year and 50% approx after five years.

Should you use it?

Now there's a question. Women struggling with anaemia, perimenopause and those with skin problems may find it beneficial, but those with high blood pressure and smokers may be advised to avoid taking the combined pill and instead opt for an alternative such as the mini pill.

When it comes to cancer protection you need to look at what various studies have found about risks and benefits. If you have a risk of breast cancer such as a family history, then the pill may not be for you. But if you're at risk of ovarian cancer, then the pill may be a good option that could offer you some extra protection.

A number of factors can influence your decision. Your lifestyle, age and preferences play a big role, but your genetic risks should also be considered. If you are concerned about using hormonal contraception or want to find out more about the options, speak to your GP.

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