Health benefits and risks of the combined pill
To decide if the pill is right for you, there are different health benefits and risks to think about. It can reduce your risk of some cancers but can increase your risk of thrombosis and breast cancer.
Health benefits of the pill
The pill has a positive effect on some serious health conditions. It can reduce your risk of some cancers and help with acne, PMS, PCOS and endometriosis.
Reduces your risk of ovarian cancer and cancer of the lining of the womb
Once you’ve been on the pill for 10 years it reduces your risk of ovarian cancer and cancer of the lining of the womb by 50%. This benefit may continue for up to 30 years after stopping the pill.
Reduces your risk of cancer of the colon
The combined pill reduces your risk of cancer of the colon and rectum by 19%.
Improves or reduces acne
Oestrogen can reduce the amount of oil produced by your skin cells, which means the pill can improve acne for some people. But progestogen can increase oil production.
This is why both the changes in your natural menstrual cycle and the hormone levels in different brands of pill can affect your skin.
Reduces heavy bleeding
During a menstrual cycle, the lining of the womb builds up to prepare for pregnancy. When the pregnancy hasn’t happened, your body naturally gets rid of the lining as a period.
On the pill, you don’t experience the hormone changes of a natural cycle. As your womb lining stays thinner, the blood never builds up, so when you bleed it’s lighter than a typical period.
Helps with endometriosis
Endometriosis means you have the same cells that make up the lining of the womb in other areas of the body, such as on the ovary or on the bowel.
When you have a period, you may bleed in these areas too, which can irritate the tissues around these areas and be painful.
If you take the pill in a way that stops bleeding or means you have a shorter, lighter bleed, then you can also reduce bleeding from areas where you have endometriosis, reducing the pain.
Help with PCOS
PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) is associated with higher levels of androgens.
Androgens are a family of hormones that include testosterone. At higher levels, they can cause symptoms such as excessive hair growth or acne.
The oestrogen in the combined pill can help balance the levels of androgens.
This means that the pill can reduce or stop some symptoms of PCOS, including making skin less oily, reducing hair loss on the head and hair growth on other areas of the body.
Health risks of the pill
The pill is generally safe to use but there are some important health risks associated with it.
Whether you’re likely to suffer from these risks will depend on your own and your close relatives’ health history.
This is why when you first get the pill, you’ll be asked key questions to see if it’s suitable for you. If you order fro SH:24, we will ask you about your health and history to make sure it’s safe to prescribe.
Increases the risk of thrombosis
The combined pill increases your risk of a blood clot in the legs or the lungs by roughly 3.5 times.
This is an increase from 2 in 10,000 people a year to 5-12 in 10,000 people a year.
This is why the pill isn’t suitable for anyone with a higher risk of thrombosis, including:
people who are over 35 and who also smoke
people with a family history of thrombosis under the age of 45
people with a BMI of over 35
The risk of thrombosis also depends on the type of progestogen that is combined with oestrogen in the combined pill.
Long flights increase this risk
The risk of thrombosis increases in situations where you have limited mobility, which means not being able to move easily, such as on a plane or long journey.
If you’re using the combined pill and taking a long-distance flight of more than 8 hours, try to make sure that you get up and walk around regularly during the flight.
High altitudes also increase the risk
The risk of thrombosis also increases if you’re trekking to high altitudes (over 4,500m) for more than 1 week.
To cope with the low oxygen levels at high altitudes your body produces extra red blood cells, which can increase your risk of thrombosis.
Consider changing your method of contraception if you’re going to be at a high altitude for longer than a week.
Surgery can increase this risk
If you’re having surgery that means you’ll be in bed and have limited movement for a few days, then you should discuss stopping the pill before your operation with the surgeon.
Increases the risk of heart disease
The pill increases blood pressure in 5% of women, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
That’s why you should measure your blood pressure before starting the pill and every year after that.
It’s also why the pill isn’t advised if you have other risks for heart disease, for example if you’re aged over 35 and also smoke.
If any of these apply to you, make an appointment to discuss the pill with your healthcare professional.
Increases the risk of breast cancer
The combined pill slightly increases your risk of breast cancer while you’re taking it, and for up to 5 years after you stop taking it.
This is because the hormones in the pill may encourage some cells to multiply more than normal.
The risk is small and the research shows that using the pill causes about 14 extra cases of breast cancer in every 10,000 women who take it.
To put this in context:
in people who do NOT use the pill – about 40 in every 10,000 will develop breast cancer between the ages of 30 and 39
in people who DO use the pill – about 54 in every 10,000 will develop breast cancer between the ages of 30 and 39
If you have a family history of breast cancer then you already have a higher risk of breast cancer than the general population, but it’s not clear whether the pill adds to this. Unless you have a very strong family history of breast cancer the benefits of taking the pill often outweigh the risks.
Increases the risk of cervical cancer
The combined pill slightly increases your risk of cervical cancer while you’re taking it, and for up to 5 years after you stop taking it.
Everything you wanted to know about sexual health and wellbeing - your questions answered by our expert team.