Birth control pills and Infertility

One of the most common myths around infertility is whether past usage of birth control pills by a woman can result in infertility later on. If you also have a similar query, please read on for an answer!

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Many women with suspected/ diagnosed infertility often ask me if their infertility could have resulted from usage of birth control pills in the past. There is clearly no such association between using birth control pills and infertility and suppression of fertility by birth control pills gets completely reversed on discontinuing the pill. Let us first understand how the birth control pills actually work, and, then we will discuss why these pills cannot lead to infertility.

History of birth control pill

Birth control pills have been in existence since year 1957, when the US FDA approved using these hormonal tablets for treatment of severe menstrual disorders. However, they became much more popular some three year later, when the same US FDA approved using these pills as “birth control pills”. Over these 55 years, this magical medicine has been safely used by millions of women all over the world to control when they want to be mothers, and therefore, have been touted as a “woman’s best friend”.

The pills have evolved over all these years and the new generation birth control pills, which are uses these days contain much lesser quantity of hormones than their original predecessors. This makes the modern pills much safer for women, while being equally efficacious in preventing ovulation and controlling the menstrual cycle.

How do birth control pills work?

Birth control pills are essentially hormone pills containing female sex hormones – estrogen and progesterone. These hormones send negative signals to the pituitary gland located within the brain, thus stopping production of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland. FSH and LH are responsible for maturation of a growing follicle and ovulation during the normal menstrual cycle. Circulating FSH and LH do not allow the uterine lining to grow appropriately. This, in turn, leads to formation of abnormal cervical mucus, which inhibits swift movement of sperms and also doesn’t allow the embryo (if it forms) to settle in the endometrium.

Can use of birth control pills lead to infertility?  

The simple answer is “No”, because the pill just contains the synthetic version of the hormones which are otherwise also produced inside the woman’s body!

There is now enough scientific evidence to refute any cause- effect relationship between intake of birth control pills and subsequent infertility. Some temporary disruption in menstrual cycle for a few months after stopping the pill is known to occur in some women and is known as “post-pill amenorrhea”. But even this phenomenon is mostly unrelated to intake of pill per se and is rather caused by coexisting problems such as being underweight or depressed. Most of the women resume their normal “pre-pill” cycles within 1-3 month of stopping the pill and are ovulating normally by this time.

What are the benefits of using birth control pills for subfertile women?

Birth control pills provide some additional benefits to enhance fertility among women.

  1. In women with irregular cycles, especially due to polycystic ovaries (PCOS), birth control pills are used to improve hormonal imbalance as a premedication before starting fertility treatment. Read here for more information on PCOS and infertility.
  2. Birth control pills are very useful in managing the excessive facial hair growth (hirsutism) in patients with PCOS. The pills suppress the level of circulating male hormones in the body of these patients, which is the major cause of facial hair growth. Read more about hirsutism and role of birth control pills in its treatment here.
  3. Birth control pills also provide some protection against Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) – an infective condition of the female reproductive organs leading to inflammation and blockage of tubes. The pills cause thickening of cervical mucus, which protects the reproductive organs from infections by preventing transport of infective organisms into uterus and tubes. You can read more about PID and infertility in my upcoming post.
  4. Birth control pills help in improving the symptoms of endometriosis, especially the pain associated with it. Using the pills also slows down the progression of the disease by reducing the level of circulating estrogen in body. I will be writing on this subject soon.
  5. Intake of birth control pills is also known to reduce the risk of cancers of ovaries and uterus, which themselves could affect the woman’s fertility.

Are there any risks associated with use of birth control pills?

Birth control pills falls under the category of “Schedule H” drugs in India, which means that a physician’s prescription is required to purchase these pills. Irrespective of this regulations and like for any other medication, birth control pills should always be started only on a doctor’s advice. Although the modern pills are very safe and have minimal side effects/ complications in vast majority of users, there are situations in which the pills should be used with caution/ not used at all, such as women over 40 years of age, smokers, women with known liver diseases or clotting disorders etc. Please read more about such contraindications in the suggested readings below and consult your gynecologist before starting the pill.

Further readings

  1. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/birth-control-pill
  2. http://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/birth-control-pills?page=1#1
  3. http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/combination-birth-control-pills/basics/definition/prc-20014056

Author: Dr Parul Katiyar MD (Infertility & Reproductive Medicine)

Senior Consultant Infertility and Reproductive Medicine Nova IVI Fertility Block B 2/1A, Africa Avenue, Safdarjung Enclave, RK Puram, Sector 2, New Delhi, Delhi 110029

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