Contrary to myth, the birth control pill does not cause polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). It’s quite the opposite, actually. Birth control pills are typically used to help treat symptoms of PCOS.
While the exact cause of PCOS isn’t known, it’s generally assumed that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are at work, along with some lifestyle factors in some people.
Knowing more about PCOS can help you talk with a health professional about the condition and find help managing your symptoms.
What the research says
Birth control pills don’t cause PCOS. While the exact cause is not known, environmental and genetic factors work together to cause the condition. The particular gene is unknown, but family histories of PCOS are common.
In PCOS, there are abnormalities in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, insulin secretion and action, and ovarian function. People typically go to their doctor because of changes in weight, acne, menstrual problems, or infertility, and are then found to have PCOS.
The myth that birth control pills cause PCOS may be related to a condition called post-birth control syndrome. This is a collection of symptoms that can occur in some people when they stop taking hormonal birth control.
Symptoms can include:
- menstrual changes
- weight gain acne
- hair loss
- fertility difficulties
The pill does not necessarily cause these symptoms. Many health professionals feel that they are a normal occurrence and that it is the body adjusting to the change in hormones. These usually resolve in a few months.
PCOS is a hormone disorder that may also lead to other conditions. It is a common cause of infertility. Signs and symptoms can vary and may include:
- missed periods, irregular periods, or very light periods
- enlarged ovaries or cystic ovaries
- excess body hair, including on the chest, stomach, and back
- weight gain, particularly around the belly acne
- oily skin
- thinning hair or baldness
- skin tags on the neck and armpits
- darkened patches of skin on the back of the neck or under the breasts
Treatment for PCOS can vary and depends on several factors, including:
- your age
- the severity of symptoms
- your overall health
- whether you want to become pregnant in the future
Oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, are often a treatment for PCOS. The main diagnostic part of PCOS is hyperandrogenism, which is having too many androgens, or male sex hormones.
Combined hormonal contraceptives can help reduce the production of androgens as well as reduce the risk of metabolic disorders associated with PCOS.
Birth control pills can also:
- regulate your menstrual cycle, reducing your risk of endometrial cancer
- clear up your skin
- reduce menstrual cramps
- lessen menstrual flow and reduce your risk of becoming anemic
- reduce your risk of ovarian cysts
Side effects from oral contraceptives
Many have no side effects from the pill, but some do. There are different kinds of pills, and each person can react differently. Side effects of the birth control pill can include:
- spotting, which is normal when first starting the pill or if you miss a pill
- nausea, which may happen at first but typically goes away
- headaches, which may subside by using a pill with less estrogen
- mood changes
- sore or enlarged breasts
- weight changes
- blood clots
If you are short of breath, have pain or swelling in your leg, or have chest pain, seek medical care immediately. This could be a sign of a blood clot.
Before going on the birth control pill, talk with a healthcare professional about any family history of blood clots or clotting disorders or if you smoke.
Other treatments can include:
- medications to cause ovulation (if you want to become pregnant), such as Clomid
- diabetes medication to lower insulin resistance, reduce androgen levels, and improve ovulation
- changes in diet and activity level
- anti-androgen drugs to lower androgen levels and thus reduce body hair growth and acne
If someone has overweight and PCOS, a healthcare professional may recommend weight loss. This can help lower androgen, luteinizing hormone, and insulin levels. It can also help regulate ovulation.
Many with PCOS explore vitamins, supplements, and complementary treatments. Before using any of these, ask your doctor if it is safe to do so. Some vitamins may interact with certain medications, so it’s always good to check before taking anything, even if it’s a natural remedy.
When to talk with a professional
If you are having menstrual irregularities or notice any symptoms of PCOS, talk with a healthcare professional. If you are trying to conceive and having difficulty, you might want to ask your doctor about PCOS.
Telling them about your symptoms and how long they have been going on can let them know more about your situation and provide you with the treatment that is best for you.
The bottom line
PCOS is a hormone disorder, and while it cannot be cured, it can be managed and treated. Although the exact cause of PCOS is not known, birth control pills do not cause the condition. In fact, it’s just the opposite — they are used to help treat PCOS.
If you have questions about the causes of PCOS or your own health and medical situation, talk with a healthcare professional. They can provide you with the most personalized information to address any questions or concerns.
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