Birth Control Pills Carry Surprising Risk

Well this can't be good. Apparently, hormonal birth control pills don't only contribute to your risk of stroke and breast cancer. Now, a new study suggests that even if you do make it to a ripe old age, birth control may rob you of your sight. A team from the University of California-San Francisco, Duke University, and Third Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University examined data from the Center for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and what they found isn't good: just three-years of taking birth control pills doubled women's chances of getting glaucoma — an incurable condition that is a leading cause of blindness. (And no, this isn't like that time they told you that masturbating would make you blind.)

The researchers reported that the findings held true even when they took other risk factors (which include a family history of the disease) into account. Of course, this isn’t a strictly causative effect — but it’s a pretty significant correlation. That’s not even mentioning that the pill is considered a class one carcinogen by the World Health Organization, just like tobacco and asbestos.

“We can’t really say [birth control pills] cause glaucoma,” said Duke University’s Elaine Wang, an author of the study. “But if you have been taking it for more than three years, and especially if you have other risk factors such as family history and older age, then you might want to talk to your doctor and go see an ophthalmologist to screen for glaucoma.” She also hopes the study will isolate risk factors and help women control for them.

Glaucoma affects between one and two percent of middle aged American women, and more than four in five sexually active women have used the pill at some point. So even if you are on the pill, the risk of disease is very small, especially considering that other diseases like heart disease affect upwards of ten percent of the American population.

The study isn’t a glaring indictment for the pill. After all, it just adds to a laundry list of dangers we already knew existed, and, in every situation, a woman and her doctor must weigh the risks against the benefits. If, for instance, a pill helps regulate someone’s menstrual cycle and help them function when they would have otherwise been immobilized by discomfort or pain, it might be worth the tradeoff.

But perhaps it’s time to revisit the IUD; a hormone-free T-shaped birth control device. It’s inserted once by a doctor, and then it's good for ten years — no need to remember to swallow a pill at the same time every day. It’s one of the most effective forms of birth control, with a failure rate of less than one percent (probably because there’s almost no risk for human error). Plus, if you have insurance, IUDs are cheap (or cheaper in the long run) than the pill, with a one-time fee. It’s a loss for big pharma, but a win for women. Safe, effective, and super low-risk.

IUDs got a bad rep in the 1970s, when some faulty IUDs caused sterility and death. But they’re back — and safe[r] — and might be the easiest way to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Still, they are struggling to catch on in the States. As Bustle reported last summer:

Only eight percent of women in the U.S. using contraceptives rely on an IUD. We’re three times less likely to use one than a woman overseas.

Some doctors still won’t prescribe IUDs for patients who have not yet had children, though the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists revised its 2007 guidelines to say that IUDs are indeed appropriate contraceptives for most women and adolescents — they are, in fact, recommended as a first line option, along with education on STIs...

IUDs can cost up to $1,000 out of pocket — a bargain compared to the pill when you consider it can last 10 years — but a prohibitive cost up front. Some argue that the devices are overpriced.

Of course, if you don't have another method lined up, don't trash your birth control pills just yet. If you’re not opting for another highly-effective birth control method, it’s worth weighing the risks of the pill against the risks of pregnancy, which, “itself carries significant health risks,” said Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Dr. Stephen Sisson. You think?

As for me, I’m casting my vote in favor of funding research for a birth control method that places the contraceptive burden on men. Yeah, we've got a slideshow allllll about that idea.

Edit: A reader wanted me to let everyone know that the IUD is an abortifacient. I can't do that, because it's actually not.