Published Nov 19, 2013 EveryDay Health
Hormonal contraception is the most common prescription medication used by healthy young women so it’s always disconcerting to hear that there may be a serious health consequence as a result. This week, researchers reported that women who take oral contraceptives for three years or more are more than twice as likely to develop glaucoma, which can cause blindness if untreated. Before you flush your pills down the toilet, you need to know that the risk of getting glaucoma in the United States is less than 1% in individuals under the age of 55. More important, association is not the same as cause and effect. In other words, while women in the study who took birth control pills were twice as likely to have glaucoma, the researchers acknowledge that the pills didn’t necessarily cause glaucoma. It’s an interesting observation and is not the first time that estrogen levels have been associated with glaucoma risk. In fact, it has been known for some time that numbers of affected women increase immediately after menopause, when estrogen levels take a dive. But, everyone agrees that more research is needed to determine how and whom an alteration in estrogen levels impacts the most.
To further keep things in perspective, keep in mind the pill not only provides excellent contraception, but reduces or eliminates health problems that are far more common than glaucoma including heavy menstrual bleeding, anemia, painful menses, issues from endometriosis, and cancer. That’s right; women that take the pill have a significant reduction in ovarian, colon and uterine cancer, the most common gynecologic cancer. The up to 50% reduction in uterine cancer rates with one year of pill use alone goes under the heading of “the greater good”
So while the observation that birth control pills in women may increase the risk of glaucoma, keep the big picture in mind. This is not to minimize the impact of glaucoma, which is the second leading cause of blindness in the United States after cataracts. Get screened for glaucoma if you are over 40, earlier if you are African American , are diabetic, or have a family history of glaucoma. It’s not a reason to stop taking your pill.