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Four Decades of the Birth Control Pill

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The pill has also been shown to decrease the risk of precancerous changes in the uterus, Roberts says. "The other benefits are less significant, but if you have someone with very heavy periods, very irregular periods, lots of cramps, or discomfort from PMS symptoms, using the pill can decrease a lot of those symptoms. The pill has also been used for treating endometriosis, a condition that is one of the major causes of infertility. It's a little paradoxical; the same pill that stops pregnancy may also help you get pregnant."

While one pharmaceutical company has been advertising a new pill as having the ability to decrease acne, "that was something we saw from the very beginning, so it's not particularly new or unique to that pill," Roberts says. "But you see people [on the pill] who have less oily skin, less acne. It's one of the side effects that's a fringe benefit."

How long can a woman safely take the pill? Conventional wisdom has changed a bit since the '60s. "Initially, people thought you could go to age 40 -- or age 35 if you were a smoker -- but what we've found is that if people smoke and take birth control pills, they have more difficulty with clotting abnormalities," Roberts tells WebMD. "What's turning out is that you can probably can go beyond age 40, and may well be able to go into menopause, then switch to postmenopausal hormone replacement."

Many women find that the pill controls premenopausal symptoms like hot flashes or irregular periods, according to data from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Roberts, who has monitored the pill phenomenon during the past 20 years, says that public health threats have changed since the early days of oral contraception. "We now have a situation where pregnancy is not the major concern that people have, with HIV and HPV infection. Studies have suggested that the pill would increase cervical cancer because there would be less concern about having intercourse with multiple partners."

Today, there are nearly 50 different oral contraceptive pills from which doctors can choose. An emergency birth control pill -- the so-called "day-after pill" -- has been quietly used for more than 20 years, although it only received official FDA approval for that purpose in 1998, Feldt says.

"We've found that as soon as we could advertise availability of the emergency contraceptive, we've seen very dramatic increases in ... people seeking information about it, so they would be informed should they need it, but also dramatic usage," she says. "Research indicates that unintended abortion could be reduced by half if every woman could have emergency contraception."

Of the myriad of oral contraceptives on the market, all are variations of the basic structure, fine-tuned to give the effects women want -- protection from pregnancy -- and minimize side effects.

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