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Is there any truth to these contraception myths?

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Most women will use some form of birth control in their lifetime. Here in Australia, two thirds of women of reproductive age are using a method of contraception, in most cases the Pill.

Yet, despite how everyday it is, we hear some seriously mixed reports about birth control and its side effects.

We asked the women in our office what ‘truths’ they’ve been told about the Pill, IUDs, emergency contraception and others over the years. You’ve probably heard most of these in your time, too, from your mum, your sister or just in general watercooler chat.

Then we took these stories to three health experts — Dr Deborah Bateson, Medical Director of Family Planning NSW; Professor Jayne Lucke, Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society; and Dr Kathleen McNamee, Medical Director of Family Planning Victoria — to help us sort the facts from the total bollocks.

“You should change your Pill every couple of years, otherwise your body gets used to it and it becomes less effective.”

Verdict: Myth

“There’s absolutely no evidence that the Pill becomes less effective the longer you take it,” says Dr Bateson. “We also know it is common for younger and older women sometimes to come in and say, ‘I needed a Pill holiday’ – what we know is that that actually increases the risk of an unintended pregnancy. There’s no reason whatsoever to have a break.”

That doesn’t mean you should stick to just one Pill, or one type of birth control – it’s always worth discussing the range of available options with a doctor. Similarly, finding the best Pill for you doesn’t always happen straight away. Dr Bateson says it’s worth talking to a doctor about changing to another Pill if your current one gives you side effects you’re uncomfortable or unhappy with.

“I’m on the Pill. That’s me sorted for life.”

Verdict: Myth. Even if the Pill is working well for you, it’s often worth exploring other options as your needs could evolve over time.

“There are a number of different long-acting reversible methods (like the implant or IUD) that might suit you better, be more cost effective, or simply be less hassle,” Professor Lucke says. “Women often find that they need to review their contraceptive needs at certain times, like when they have a new partner, after having a baby, or when they have decided that they don’t want to have any more children.”

Here are some different options to consider [post continues after gallery]

“IUDs aren’t a good option for young women who don’t have kids.”

Verdict: A big, fat myth. IUDs are increasingly popular among this demographic, and they’re commonly recommended by doctors.

“We’ve noticed a really interesting change here – seven or eight years ago we hardly ever did them in young women who hadn’t had children, but now most of our clients are young women who haven’t had children. I would say it’s at least 60 per cent of the women we see,” Dr McNamee says.

“We think they’re a really good option for young women because they’re very effective. You can have a hormonal one, and that’s got the benefit of giving you a really light period or no period at all. Or you can have a copper one and that doesn’t have any hormones – it’s the really the only reliable, reversible method and there’s no hormones.”

It doesn’t really matter how you store your birth control, right?

Verdict: It's not a huge drama, but it's worth giving it some thought – use your common sense and read the packages.

"For most Pills there is some guidance on the packaging that it shouldn't go above about 25 degrees. Generally, as long as you're keeping your Pill in a cool-ish place in the cupboard or bedside drawer, there's no problems, and certainly, when we're transporting contraceptives we need to make sure they don't go above certain temperatures," says Dr Bateson. She also advises keeping the Pill in a visible location so you don't forget to take it.

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However, storage temperature is particularly important for the vaginal rings, as they're heat-activated. As for condoms, keep them out of direct sunlight as you would with any other medications. If your birth control's packaging is getting damaged, perhaps find another place to keep it.

"You get your period for ages after taking out an IUD"

Verdict: Myth — IUDs are fully reversible, so you should simply go back to your previous menstrual cycle. This also applies to the Pill.

"Sometimes there can be a tiny bit of bleeding associated with the removal, but that would generally be a bit unusual," says Dr Bateson. "But there's certainly no evidence that women are going to have prolonged bleeding after taking out a [hormonal] IUD. Generally, you would just go back to the pattern of bleeding that you had before your IUD was put in, which might have been heavier or more irregular ... and your fertility goes back to normal pretty much straight away."

"Long-term use of the Pill can impact my future fertility."

With all these myths circulating, is it any wonder stock image models always look so confused about birth control?

Verdict: This is a common myth surrounding any hormonal contraceptive, including IUDs. Unless your contraception is a permanent method like sterilisation, there's no effect on resuming fertility. You should return to your normal level.

"With the Pill, there’s no evidence of any long term affect to fertility. There might be a very short delay – you can fall pregnant right after coming off the Pill but on average there's a tiny, short delay. But you catch up pretty quickly," explains Dr McNamee.

Interestingly, there are some benefits of Pill usage that could slightly improve a woman's fertility chances. "It decreases the risk of ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer. They aren’t common causes of infertility but could impact on your fertility. It also helps with the symptoms of endometriosis, [which] is a common cause of fertility problems. We’re not sure it has any impact on the endometriosis itself or it’s just treating the symptoms, but potentially there could be a benefit there," Dr McNamee says.

Dr Bateson highlights that for women using the Depo injection, it can take up to a year for her normal rate of fertility to return.

"The Pill has no side-effects whatsoever."

Verdict: Largely a myth. Again, it depends on the individual taking it.

"That would be great," Dr McNamee laughs. "You know, most women are absolutely fine on the Pill, but it seems like headaches and breast tenderness, bleeding at the wrong time – usually just light bleeding while you’re getting used to it at the start – are quite common at the start. But common enough that they mostly settle down. And there are a couple of serious risks ... things like blood clots, heart attacks, stroke, but in young, healthy women they’re very uncommon."

"Skipping your period using the Pill is bad for you."

Verdict: Current medical data indicates it's a safe thing to do. However, the choice is all yours. If you're uncomfortable with missing your monthly period, there's no need to do it.

"We've been recommended for many years that women can skip their sugar pills, or if they're using a vaginal ring they can skip their ring-free break if they choose to do so. There's absolutely no harm in doing that, we've got really good safety data that it's a safe thing to advise," explains Dr Bateson.

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"We'll sometimes advise that women not have any bleeding for up to a year. There's no blood building up inside - continuous use of the Pill thins out the Endometrium, so there's no bleeding because there's nothing there to have a bleed with."

"Hormonal contraceptives can change your personality."

Verdict: Mood swings are a known side effect for some women, but no, it's not a Jekyll and Hyde situation.

"We do know that hormones can be associated with mood changes and mood swings," says Dr Bateson. "Sometimes people will describe having a change in their mood on the Pill; often it's transient, but if that's causing problems for them it's worth talking to a doctor and maybe changing the formulation, or choosing something different altogether. There are contraceptives without hormones, of course, like the copper IUD. It's important to know there are ways of tackling these side effects."

"If you take emergency contraception too many times you'll mess up your body."

Verdict: Myth, although it's worth remembering that emergency contraception isn't one hundred per cent effective in preventing pregnancy.

"I wouldn’t have any medical concerns about it at all. It’s an incredibly safe drug," Dr McNamee says. "My main concern about repeated use for this is that it’s not that effective ... if you have unprotected sex it decreases your risk by 85 percent of becoming pregnant by that act of unprotected sex. But if you use it persistently it’s going to fail you at some stage. So we would say there’s no limit to the number of times you can use it, because you never know which actual act of unprotected sex that you might be at risk of becoming pregnant from. It doesn’t give any real forward protection at all. If a condom breaks one day and breaks the day after we just suggest using it again."

"Being on the Pill will make me gain weight – and my boobs will grow."

Verdict: Depends on the person, but on average, it's not likely.

"If you look at the average, there’s no actual increase in weight with the Pill. It’s been looked as a number of times. Some people might lose weight – I do actually think there might be a very small percentage of women who are sensitive to the Pill and might gain weight on it but if you look at the average, no," Dr McNamee says.

It's a similar story for breast size - if women do notice an increase, it's often temporary. "We don’t know exactly what the mechanism is - maybe fluid or something in the breast. It might increase the size but it’s usually a short term affect. It usually settles down."

"I'll get the best advice about birth control from my mum/my best mates."

Verdict: Myth — unless your mum/BFF is a qualified doctor. When it comes to birth control, you need your advice to come from experts.

"Although you might get some interesting information from friends and family, their bodies, relationships and experiences with contraception may be very different from yours," explains Professor Lucke. "New methods of contraception like the implant and hormonal IUD may not have been available when your mum was making her choices about contraception, and she might not have up to date information."

Professor Lucke suggests finding a health professional who is familiar with all available birth control options, and can help you explore them all and make a decision that's right for you. The information on reputable websites like Family Planning can also guide your choices.

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