Birth Control Pills (Oral Contraceptives) (cont.)
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Medical and Pharmacy Editor:
Most birth control pills are packaged as 21-day or 28-day units. For 21-day packages, tablets are taken daily for 21 days. This is followed by a seven-day period during which no birth control pills are taken. Then the cycle repeats.
For the 28-day units, tablets containing medication are taken for 21 consecutive days, followed by a seven-day period during which placebo tablets (containing no medication) are taken.
Newer formulations with 24 days of hormone pills and only four days of placebo pills are now available, as are continuous or extended-cycle oral contraceptive regimens, in which only active hormone pills are taken. Extended-cycle preparations include seven-day intervals of placebo pills to be taken approximately every three months.
Women just starting to take birth control pills should use additional contraception for the first seven days of use because pregnancy may occur during this period.
If women forget to take tablets, pregnancy may result. If a single tablet is forgotten, it should be taken as soon as it is realized that it is forgotten. If more than one tablet is forgotten, the instructions that come with the packaging should be consulted, or a physician or pharmacist should be called.
DRUG INTERACTIONS: Estrogens can inhibit the metabolism (elimination) of cyclosporine, resulting in increased cyclosporine blood levels. Such increased blood levels can result in kidney and/or liver damage. If this combination cannot be avoided, cyclosporine concentrations can be monitored, and the dose of cyclosporine can be adjusted to assure that its blood levels do not become elevated.
Estrogens appear to increase the risk of liver disease in patients receiving dantrolene (Dantrium) through an unknown mechanism. Women over 35 years of age and those with a history of liver disease are especially at risk.
Estrogens increase the liver's ability to manufacture clotting factors. Because of this, patients receiving warfarin (Coumadin) need to be monitored for loss of anticoagulant (blood thinning) effect if an estrogen is begun.
A number of medications, including some antibiotics and antiseizure medications, can decrease the blood levels of oral contraceptive hormones, but an actual decrease in the effectiveness of the oral contraceptive has not been convincingly proven. Nonetheless, because of this theoretical possibility, some physicians recommend backup contraceptive methods during antibiotic use. Examples of medications that increase the elimination of estrogens include
Birth control pills with higher concentrations of estrogen or alternative forms of contraception may be necessary in women using those medications.
PREGNANCY: Rarely, fetal abnormalities (including those of the vertebrae, anus, heart, trachea, esophagus, kidney, and limbs) have been reported (in about seven per 10,000 cases of exposure during pregnancy to oral contraceptives), but a clear association with fetal abnormalities has not been firmly established. Modified development of the sexual organs occurs somewhat more frequently, in about three per 1,000 cases of exposure. Specifically, masculinization of female infants has been reported with norethindrone and norethynodrel. Increased blood bilirubin concentrations and jaundice have been reported in infants born to women who took oral contraceptives shortly before and after conception.
NURSING MOTHERS: Use of birth control pills during lactation has been associated with decreased milk production, decreased infant weight gain, and decreased nitrogen and protein content of milk. The amount of estrogen consumed by an infant whose mother takes a standard dose of birth control pills is considered to be the same as from a lactating woman who is not taking birth control pills, and side effects have not been reported. Using a progestin-only product is most often recommended during lactation if birth control pills are to be used during this period. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends delaying taking combined estrogen-progestin contraceptives until at least six weeks postpartum, while the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends delaying the initiation of combined contraceptives until six months.
SIDE EFFECTS: The most common side effects of the birth control pills include nausea, headache, breast tenderness, weight gain, irregular bleeding, and mood changes. These side effects often subside after a few months' use. Scanty menstrual periods or breakthrough bleeding may occur but are often temporary, and neither side effect is serious. Women with a history of migraines may notice an increase in migraine frequency. On the other hand, women whose migraines are triggered by fluctuations in their own hormone levels may notice improvement in migraines with oral contraceptive use because of the more uniform hormone levels during oral contraceptive use. Uncommonly, oral contraceptives may contribute to increased blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack, and stroke. Women who smoke, especially those over 35, and women with certain medical conditions, such as a history of blood clots or breast or endometrial cancer, may be advised against taking oral contraceptives, as these conditions can increase the adverse risks of oral contraceptives.
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