, Volume 22, Issue 5, pp 361-371
Date: 19 Oct 2012

Cardiovascular Events Associated With Different Combined Oral Contraceptives

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Abstract

Studies of combined oral contraceptive (COC) use and cardiovascular disease have been conducted against a background of low cardiovascular risk in young women, changing COC composition and changing user selection and monitoring. Studies of myocardial infarction have found inconsistent results, possibly because of differences in the prevalence of risk factors (particularly smoking and raised blood pressure) in the populations studied. In the absence of a history of smoking and other conventional risk factors, current users of modern COCs probably do not have an increased risk of myocardial infarction. Neither are former users at risk. Evidence for important differences in the risk of myocardial infarction between formulations is weak and contradictory.

Current users of low estrogen dose COCs have a small increased risk of ischaemic stroke although most of the risk occurs in women with other risk factors (notably smoking, hypertension and probably a history of migraine). Former users of COCs do not have an increased risk of ischaemic stroke. There is insufficient information to determine whether major differences in the risk of ischaemic stroke exist between products. Current users appear to have a modestly elevated risk of haemorrhagic stroke, mainly in women older than 35 years; former users do not. Data examining the risk of haemorrhagic stroke in current COC users with other risk factors are very sparse, as are those relating to the haemorrhagic stroke risk associated with particular COCs.

Numerous studies have found, with remarkable consistency, an elevated risk of venous thromboembolism among current users of low estrogen dose COCs. The risk is substantially elevated among women with various inherited clotting factor defects. The effects in COC users with other risk factors for venous thrombosis tend to be less pronounced and more inconsistent. A number of studies have found higher relative risks among current users of low estrogen dose COCs containing desogestrel or gestodene, than among users of similar products containing levonorgestrel. A number of explanations, in terms of bias or confounding, have been proposed for these clinically small differences. At best, empirical evidence for these explanations, is weak.

The risk of cardiovascular disease of any description is low in COC users. Women can minimise, and possibly eliminate entirely, their arterial risks by not smoking and by having their blood pressure checked before using a COC (in order to avoid its use if raised blood pressure is discovered). Users may decrease their venous thromboembolic risk by their choice of COC preparation although the effects will be modest.