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Birth Control Pills May Up a Woman’s Glaucoma Risk

Birth Control Pills May Up a Woman’s Glaucoma Risk

If you’re one of the millions of women who’ve used birth control pills over the years, you may want to book an eye exam. Research suggests that using oral contraceptives may put you at higher risk for developing glaucoma.

A team of researchers studied more than 3,400 women over the age of 40. They found that women who took birth control pills for longer than three years were twice as likely to be diagnosed with glaucoma. The findings were presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that progressively damage the eye’s optic nerve and retina. The cause of glaucoma isn’t clear, but it’s been linked to a buildup of fluid pressure inside the eye.

This study couldn’t explain how birth control pills cause the apparent risk, but other research helps connect the dots. Growing evidence shows that estrogen may play a role in keeping women’s eyes healthy. In fact, taking estrogen therapy after menopause may actually protect against glaucoma.

But many birth control pills contain estrogen, right? Here’s the rub: The pill controls hormones to prevent pregnancy, keeping estrogen levels from peaking during a woman’s menstrual cycle. That means a woman taking birth control pills is actually exposed to less estrogen overall, reducing its protective effect.

Researchers who conducted the study say this doesn’t mean women shouldn’t stop taking the pill. But add women who have taken birth control pills for longer than three years should talk it over with their doctor, and be screened for glaucoma and checked regularly.  Early detection and treatment is important because, once vision is lost, it can’t be restored.

That check-up is even more important for women who also have any other factors that raise the risk of glaucoma, including:

  • Age over 50
  • Elevated eye pressure
  • A family history of glaucoma
  • African or Hispanic ancestry
  • Health issues like diabetes, migraine headaches or poor circulation
  • Far or nearsightedness
  • Past eye injuries
  • Other eye health issues like corneal or optic nerve thinning

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

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