How long can you safely take the contraceptive pill for?
Is there such a thing as being on the pill for too long? Can it really impact your fertility or your general health? Here’s everything you need to know…
For lots of women, the pill is the easiest method of contraception. It doesn’t require unwrapping a condom every time you have sex, it doesn’t need a doctor to insert it, and you can very easily stop taking it at any time.
But along with many other myths surrounding the pill is one floating around about how long you can ‘safely’ take it for. Should you stop after five years? Ten? Twenty? Will it really impact your fertility or your general health?
To get to the bottom of these v important questions, we spoke to Sarah Hardman, researcher and Deputy Director of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare’sClinical Effectiveness Unit. And here’s the long and the short of it: there’s no such thing as being on the pill for ‘too long’. It’s a safe form of long-term contraception, and you can now breathe a big sigh of relief.
When asked where she thinks the myth came from, Hardman put it down to natural changes in the menstrual cycle over time that are masked by the pill. “People go onto the pill when they’re young and they’re often on it for years and years. Meanwhile, in the background their fertility is changing, so when they come back off the pill they’re having irregular periods.”
But as we all know; a ‘period’ on the pill isn’t a real period at all. It’s a withdrawal bleed.
“It does give people a real fright when they come off it and things are not happening in a nice, regular, once a month way,” says Hardman. “But there’s absolutely no evidence that it’s the pill that’s causing that.”
Being on the pill is a balance of benefit over risk, and while the combined pill does come with some risk thanks to the oestrogen it contains – which can slightly increase a person’s chances of getting a blood clot or developing breast cancer – for most people that risk is so minimal that it doesn’t outweigh the contraceptive benefit.
That’s exactly why Hardman reminds us that doctors wouldn’t want “people to go on the pill and just stay on it indefinitely without being regularly checked up from a medical point of view,” because other factors or medical diagnoses can increase that risk.
The other cultural shift that affects people’s perception of the pill and whether it can be detrimental long-term is that lots of women are leaving it until later to start a family. Nowadays, many of us want to establish a career and a lifestyle before having children, meaning it can often be left later.
“Fertility reduces with age and from your mid-thirties your fertility really does reduce significantly,” points out the doctor. “So there will be women who have been on the pill (or any other kind of contraception) for a long time who leave it until their mid or late thirties before they come off the pill, and then they struggle to get pregnant. But that’s just because their fertility is lower at that stage than it was when they were 21, not because of the pill,” Hardman adds.
The doctor goes on to point out that “all types of hormonal contraception will change your bleeding pattern so you never really quite know what’s going on with your cycle.” For those who want a long-term contraception option but would still like an insight into what’s going on with their own natural cycle, however, she suggests you might want to try the copper IUD.
“You’ve got good contraception, you don’t have to do anything, and you would have a real period once a month if you were going to have a period once a month, so it’s your own natural cycle that you’re seeing,” she says.
Looks like it’s safe to carry on popping the contraceptive pills for a good while longer, then – unless you’re keen on reacquainting yourself with your IRL period, that is.
Jul 17, 2017