You've been so good about your family planning. You've always used birth control, but when can you stop? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from Obstetrics and Gynecology here at University of Utah Health Care and this is The Scope.
So you've spent all your life planning your children. You had your babies when you wanted them. You didn't have any extra babies. You've really been good at it, but when can you stop? The answer is when you or your partner are using some form of really good birth control so you can stop. If your partner has a vasectomy, well, that's great.
Declining Fertility and Risk of Complications
Now, a really good form of birth control was menopause. So let's talk a little bit about your contraceptive method and menopause. First, fertility, we know, declines starting at about 30. We know that women who are trying to get pregnant sometimes struggle in their late 30s and certainly do in their 40s. The difficulty is that a pregnancy in your 40s that's unplanned is a definite problem because women in their 40s who get pregnant, even though they're not very fertile, do have higher risks of complications in pregnancy, like high blood pressure and diabetes.
They're actually more likely, believe it or not, to have twins. And they have more complications in terms of blood loss and a whole lot of other problems just with the pregnancy. And of course, we all worry about the difficulties in chromosomal abnormalities in our babies that increases in women after their 30s. So women are more likely to have complications in pregnancy. They are more likely to have a baby with a chromosomal anomaly like Down syndrome and importantly, they are more likely to miscarry. And by the end of your 40s, you are really likely to miscarry.
Menopause as Contraception
However, you don't want to get pregnant even though your chances are low. So when, even if you're being very careful, when is it time to stop? Okay. So let's now talk about menopause. Menopause is defined as when you haven't had a period for a year. Then that last period a year ago is your menopause. Now, you have to be of the right age.
So the average 20-year-old who hasn't had a period for a year is probably not in menopause. She hasn't run out of eggs. She may have another reason for not having her periods. But women in their late 40s and early 50s who haven't had a period for a year are very, very likely to be in menopause. So if you haven't had a period for a year, then you're likely in menopause and you can stop using your contraceptive method.
However, it's difficult to know if you're in menopause based on your periods if you're using a contraceptive method that changes your periods. So let's take, for example, birth control pills. Birth control pills block ovulation but give you hormones that make you have a period every month. So you can be in menopause, have no more eggs, be completely infertile, but because you're taking the pill, you'll have a period every month.
So how do you know, if you're on birth control pills, that you're in menopause? Well, the difficult answer is you have to stop your pills and see what happens. If you stop your pills, and you're about 52, and you don't have a period for six months, then you're in menopause. But what happens if you are 52, and you're still fertile, and you stop your pills, and you get pregnant? Well, the option is, of course, to stop your pills, see what happens, and use a different method, a barrier method, use condoms, use foam. Remember, you're not very likely to get pregnant because you're not very fertile and you're not very likely to stay pregnant because you're likely to miscarry. So that's one option.
The other option is to say, "Well, why don't I just stay on my pills because going through the perimenopause," those years when your periods are totally unpredictable and not very pleasant, "why don't I stay on these nice little periods that I like on the pill until I'm about 54?" We know that at 54, about 90% of women have gotten through menopause. At 50, the average age of menopause, only 50% of women are menopausal. But by 54, about 85 to 95% of women are menopausal. So you just stay on your pills and stop at 50 and you're very likely to be done.
IUD's and Injections as Contraception
Let's talk about an IUD that has hormones in it. For women who have an IUD with hormones in it, many of those women have very light periods or no periods at all so you may not know that you're in menopause. You may have some hot flushes because your estrogens have gone away. You may use a blood test, which doesn't work very well for women on the pill, but it can work for people with a hormone-containing IUD. You could do a blood test called FSH and if that is really high, then it's likely, not guaranteed, but likely, that you've run out of eggs and you're in menopause.
Or you can just stay on that IUD that has some hormones in it until you're about 54. And many women in their early 50s who have hot flushes may want to take a little estrogen and they have the progestin protection. They protect their uterus lining against abnormalities with that little hormonal IUD. So wait until you're a little older and then take your hormonal IUD out.
If you're taking a shot like Depo-Provera, about 80% of women on Depo-Provera don't have periods so you won't know when you're in menopause. Well, the same kind of strategy goes with Depo-Provera as it does with the hormone-containing IUD. You can just wait till you're a little older or you can stop, use a backup method. You can stop your shots, use a backup method, and wait and see if you start your periods again.
So this is kind of a complicated question. The good news is that for women who stop their method, whatever it might be, at 50, then, in fact, the chances of getting pregnant are very low. How low is low for you, though? If the chances of getting pregnant and having a baby is 50 to 1 in 100, is that a number that you're willing to take a risk for? Not me. For me, that's no, I wouldn't take a 1 in 100 risk of a baby, that with all the complications of a pregnancy at 50 is. So I was much more willing to push my contraception out to 54 and then say, "Now I'm ready to be done."
So it's a personal choice. It's one that you discuss with your partner, with your family, if that's what you want to do, in terms of what their thinking about future childbearing, what kinds of risks are they willing to take if you do get pregnant? But definitely talk with your clinician because there are some options that are really good ones to make this transition with low fertility, but still some fertility, and some good therapy for menopausal symptoms.
So many women actually use a low-dose birth control pill to help them with their menopause symptoms. So that's the difficult answer for a difficult question, but I want to say good for you for having been such a good contraceptor all these years. And thanks for joining us on The Scope.
updated: January 28, 2021
originally published: September 29, 2016
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