What are the benefits of taking the pill?

The most obvious benefits are that the pill is safe, very effective (when used properly), and a reversible method of birth control.

In terms of safety, the pill causes very few deaths overall, and the deaths that do happen often occur in women known to be at higher risk for complications from using the pill. Using the pill is also safer overall than getting pregnant.

When taken properly, the pregnancy rate on the pill is very low. In the real world, however, many women skip pills, and this raises the actual pregnancy rate to about 4% or 5%.

In terms of reversible effects, most women who discontinue the pill can get pregnant within a few months.

Because of its contraceptive effects, the pill also leads to fewer ectopic pregnancies than in women not on the pill.

The pill decreases irregular menstrual bleeding and menstrual cramps, and can be used in conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis where bleeding control is important.

The pill is also associated with a lower risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (or PID), which is produced as a result of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, and when women on the pill do get PID, they seem to develop less severe cases than do women not on the pill. Some of this benefit is counterbalanced, of course, by the fact that most women on the pill do not use barrier methods of birth control and thus leave themselves open to those STIs that can be blocked with barrier methods.

The combination birth control pill lowers the risk of getting ovarian cancer by up to 50%, in part because the pill reduces number of ovulations, but also because of other still undetermined reasons. This lower ovarian cancer risk kicks in as soon as 6 months after a woman begins to take the pill, and the longer she is on the pill, the lower her risk. This benefit continues even after she discontinues her use of the pill for up to 15 more years.

The combination pill may lower the risk of uterine or endometrial cancer, too, by as much as 50%, and also as with ovarian cancer, the longer a woman is on the pill, the lower her risk of endometrial cancer.

The pill may also decrease the chance of getting colon cancer, but more research is needed.

Other non-gynecological benefits:

  • pills with less androgen activity can help control acne, and some third generation pills are prescribed mainly for their anti-acne effect
  • lighter periods on the pill reduce the risk of deficiency anemia
  • the pill leads to stronger bones, and perhaps eventually to less osteoporosis and fewer hip fractures
  • the pill may offer protection against injuring the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee; young women are much more likely than men to tear the ACL in their knees, especially, according to one study, during ovulation, but using oral contraceptives may lower that risk

Read "The pill: side effects and risks" for information on the possible downside of the pill.

Art Hister, MD 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team