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The Pill Might Raise the Risk of Lupus

Apr 14, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Birth control pills might be linked to an increased risk of developing lupus, according to an emerging study out of Canada.  WebMD reported that the risk of developing lupus increases with higher-dose birth control pills, especially those pills with at least 50 micrograms of estrogen, as well as in those women who were new pill users.

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder in which the body produces auto-antibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue, according to information on the Lupus Foundation of America Website, said WebMD.  Symptoms of lupus include inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.  Lupus—or SLE, systemic lupus erythematosus—said, typically affects young, post-pubescent women, which could imply that estrogen has something to do with activating the disorder.

"Women who take oral contraceptives have a 50 percent higher risk of having lupus than women who don't take them," said study researcher Samy Suissa, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University in Montreal, quoted WebMD.  The study appears in the April 15 issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism, said WebMD.

Prior research that looked at the link between the pill and lupus revealed conflicting results, according to Suissa’s interview with WebMD.  Suissa also told WebMD that the study reviewed the data of over 1.7 million women between the ages of 18 and 45 who were in the United Kingdom’s database—that database contains information on over six million people—for an eight-year period. said that the research was conducted by the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology at Jewish General Hospital of McGill University.

WebMD explained that the women studied were prescribed combined oral contraceptives that contain both estrogen and progestin. The researchers found close to 800 women received a first-time lupus diagnosis over the eight-year period, reported  Reviewing the records of the women who were diagnosed with lupus as well as comparing those records to the women who did not have lupus when the others were diagnosed, the researchers concluded that oral contraceptive use is linked to an increased risk of developing lupus. "I think we have clear evidence that these pills, especially at higher doses, can increase the risk of lupus," Suissa told WebMD, adding that the team believes a “genetic predisposition” might also be involved.

In other words, said, after looking at oral contraceptive use patterns between women with lupus and healthy women, researchers found that use of first- and second-generation oral contraceptive pills—which typically contain higher estrogen doses than third-generation oral contraceptive pills—is linked to an increased risk of developing lupus, especially in the first three months of use.

The Lupus Foundation explained that lupus can range in severity from mild to life-threatening and that 1.5 million Americans and an approximate total of about five million people worldwide are diagnosed with lupus, with over 16,000 new cases of lupus reported annually nationwide. added that the lead researcher in the McGill study reported a potential conflict of interest with pharmaceutical companies Organon and Schering.

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