Millions of women use birth control, but there have been risks associated with its use, namely an increased chance of heart attack, blood clots and stroke. Dr. Nicole Karjane, an OBGYN and assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University's department of obstetrics and gynecology, says these risks are usually associated with the hormone estrogen, which is present in some birth-control methods.
As such, she says progestin-only methods are generally safer, depending on the situation. However, she said that methods using both estrogen and progestin are also safe, and cautioned that progestin-only methods, such as the mini-pill, have a higher failure rate. Karjane adds that it is important for women to follow dosing instructions to ensure effectiveness.
On the whole, she says the risks are minimal for young women. Even though the risks increase for women over 35, she says they can still use birth control.
"For women over age 35 who are healthy, meaning they don't have hypertension, migraines or diabetes, and don't smoke, it is perfectly acceptable for them to take it until menopause," Karjane says.
Additional concerns were raised when a British study published last year showed a link between taking the pill and cervical cancer. However, Dr. Keith Berckle, an OBGYN with Virginia Women's Center, says that while there are more instances of cervical cancer in women taking the pill, it isn't clear that this is a true relationship. He explains that the women in the study may not have been using condoms and may have had more exposure to HPV, the virus that can cause cervical cancer.
He says that the pill can actually help prevent some cancers. "We know that birth-control pills can reduce the risk of endometrial cancer by up to 50 percent," Berckle notes, adding that birth-control pills can also reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by about 40 percent.