Feature Archive

Mis-Conceptions: Debunking Birth Control Myths

Three experts set the record straight on the most common misconceptions about birth control.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Does the birth control pill cause cancer? Can an IUD cause painful sex? Will a diaphragm protect against a sexually transmitted disease?

If you're like many women you may not know the answers -- or worse still, be all too familiar with the myths and not the facts that seem to swirl around nearly every method of birth control. Indeed, doctors say that so much misinformation is going round about birth control even they sometimes get confused about what is and isn't true.

"Sometimes I'll hear something repeated so many times from so many different patients I'll actually have to do some research myself to make sure the facts haven't changed," says Steven Goldstein, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU School of Medicine in New York.

Among the most troubling of those myths says Goldstein, is fears about a link between the birth control pill and cancer; a common misconception that keeps many women from using this highly effective method of birth control.

The good news: "The pill is not a cancer-causing agent, but a cancer-reducing agent, with good science to show that with continued pill use there's a dramatic and continued reduction in the incidence of ovarian cancer, and even uterine cancer," says Goldstein.

But what about breast cancer? Gynecologist Margaret Polaneczky, MD, puts those fears to rest as well.

"In general, the message is that it does not impact the risk of breast cancer in most women," says Polaneczky, an associate clinical professor at the Joan and Sanford Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.

The birth control pill's other health concern -- the risk of blood clots -- is slightly more complex, but again doctors say not an issue for most women.

The risk of blood clotting complications such as leg clots or lung clots is about 1 in 1,000 for all women; the risk rises to 3 in 1,000 for women on the pill, so clearly it's not something the majority need to worry about," says Goldstein.

That, however, can change as you age or if you smoke, since doctors say both factors can further increase risks.

In addition, Polaneczky says women who suffer from severe migraines, particularly with neurological symptoms such as arm or leg weakness during a migraine, may also be at increased risk for clotting complications from being on the pill. He says they might want to consider a different form of birth control.

"This should not be an issue if you have a menstrual-related migraine; only if you have neurological complications," says Polaneczky.

While the pill certainly has its share of myths, so too do other forms of birth control. Among the most misunderstood, say doctors, is the intrauterine device (IUD).

Initially it was removed from the market due to the safety issues of one particular IUD design known as the Dalkon Shield (in use from 1971-1974). Today, however, the redesigned IUDs are believed to be both safe and effective.

Still, among the top concerns: That it can interfere with tampon use; that it can dislodge during sex; that it can cause sex to be painful; that it can be felt by a partner. Experts say the answer to all is "no."

"An IUD will not interfere with tampon use, and, when properly inserted, it should not get dislodged during sex or cause you any pain, and your partner should not feel it either," says Erika Banks, MD, associate residency director of obstetrics and gynecology at Montifiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.

If any of these things do happen, says Banks, it's likely the IUD was not properly inserted, so see your doctor. And while sometimes a woman's body can expel an IUD on its own, experts say that is rare and usually occurs only in women who have never had children.

"This is one reason why most doctors continue to suggest an IUD only to women who have had children; generally, the uterus is larger and it not only holds the IUD better, it also is easier to insert it correctly," says Banks.

The other common IUD myth: That it can increase your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Doctors say that it won't; only unprotected exposure to an infected partner can do that. However, if you should contract an STD while wearing an IUD, then Goldstein says you may have a greater risk of infection to your reproductive tract and pelvic inflammatory disease.



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