You’ve likely heard headlines, health studies, or television commercials that warn about the link between oral contraceptives and an increased risk of stroke. But with millions of women every year taking an oral contraceptive, how serious is the risk, and how worried should you be? That depends, says Arie Hallowell, nurse manager of the Neuro-Cardiac ICU (NCICU) at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
“Oral contraceptives are a risk factor for stroke, but how much of a risk factor is determine by other factors, like whether or not you are a smoker, your weight, and your family history,” explains Hallowell. “Women who have other risk factors besides taking an oral contraceptive are at a greater risk for stroke than women who do not.”
Young women, especially those in their late teens, twenties, and thirties who have no history of health problems and use an oral contraceptive are at a greater risk for stroke than women who do not use an oral contraceptive, but the risk is typically very low. However, women who use an oral contraceptive and have any of the following risk factors may be at a greater risk for stroke:
- Current smoker, or a history of smoking
- High blood pressure
- History of migraines
New research published in 2016 also found that women who are obese and use an oral contraceptive may also be at an increased risk for a rare type of stroke called cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT). Although the likelihood of being affected by this type of stroke is low, the research offers an additional stroke risk factor for women and health care providers to consider.
For women with these risk factors, an oral contraceptive may not be the best method of birth control.
“Women who are at an increased risk of stroke because of other health risk factors like blood pressure or migraines wouldn’t be prescribed an oral contraceptive by their physician,” explains Hallowell. “An IUD or other non-hormonal option would likely be offered.”
If you’re considering an oral contraceptive, or are currently using an oral contraceptive, and worried about whether or not these risk factors could impact your stroke risk, talk to your Ob/Gyn about your concerns.
Talk to your doctor about which birth control method is right for you. To make an appointment with a Main Line Health doctor in your area, request an appointment online or call 1.866.CALL.MLH.