As a pharmacist, you’ve probably been asked “until what age should I use birth control?” Regardless of age, women have reproductive potential until they have reached menopause. Therefore, to prevent unplanned pregnancies, it is important to continue using contraception in the meantime (1). Pharmacists can play a vital role in helping women decide between the different birth control options as well as educating on how long contraception should be continued.
When does fertility end?
Menopause is defined as 12 consecutive months of amenorrhea. The onset of menopause can vary between 40 to 60 years of age, though the median age in North America is approximately 51 years (2). While patients should continue contraception methods until menopause, it is often difficult to accurately assess the onset when using hormonal birth control. If presence or absence of menses is not a reliable indicator for a particular patient, the measurement of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) may be used for evaluation. Alternatively, rather than assessing menopausal status, women may choose to continue contraception until the age of 55 (1). By this point, approximately 95% of women have reached menopause and it is presumptively established (3).
What are the birth control options at midlife (mid-40s to mid-50s)?
Combined Hormonal Contraceptives
Combined hormonal contraceptives (CHCs) are an option that are especially beneficial for women entering the perimenopause phase, as these options help with decreasing vasomotor symptoms (VMS) and symptoms associated with genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) commonly experienced during this transition. Examples of VMS include hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep disturbances. Examples of GSM include vaginal atrophy, irritation, dryness, dyspareunia (pain with sex) and urinary incontinence. Women may continue this option until age 55 if free of contraindications. Alternatively, they may choose to stop CHC for 1 to 2 months to allow for resumption of their menses to assess menopausal status. If this option is chosen, women should utilize another short-term, non-hormonal contraceptive method to prevent pregnancy. Once CHC is stopped, your patient may be a candidate to switch to menopausal hormone therapy (HT) to treat VMS and GSM (1). There are many options for HT and they contain similar hormones in lower doses compared to CHC. However, unlike CHC, HT will not prevent pregnancy if your patient is at risk of unintended pregnancy. Thus, it is important to ensure your patient is no longer at risk of unintended pregnancy (e.g. has reached menopause) before making the switch. The choice to continue HT after CHC should be a shared decision between a patient and her provider after a full evaluation of the risks and benefits of therapy, including an assessment of the severity of symptoms and impact on quality of life.
Aside from CHCs, there are several progestin-only contraception methods that women may choose to use. Options include progestin-only pills, the hormonal implant (Nexplanon), depot medroxyprogesterone, and hormonal intrauterine devices (IUDs). These options may cause amenorrhea, therefore similarly to CHCs, it can be difficult to assess the onset of menopause. These options may also be used until the age of 55 if no contraindications exist. For women who choose to start menopausal HT following this, they may use their long-acting IUD in place of other progesterone formulations for endometrial protection — which is required for patients who have an intact uterus (1).
Although many hormonal contraception options exist, one non-hormonal option that women can consider is the copper IUD, ParaGard. Unlike others, ParaGard tends to increase menstrual flow in the first 3 to 6 months, then normalize thereafter. Therefore, identifying the onset of menopause may be easier in women using this option. ParaGard may be safely continued until menopause is reached (1).
In conclusion, patients who wish to avoid an unintended pregnancy should use contraception until menopause. Pharmacists can educate patients on the risk of unintended pregnancy in midlife and determine eligibility for the various methods of contraception. While hormonal options may make it difficult to assess the onset of menopause, these options can safely be continued until the age of 55, if there are no contraindications. At age 55, menopause is presumptively established. Non-hormonal options like ParaGard may be continued until menopause is reached. Once post-menopausal, women may discontinue contraception methods completely, or switch to hormone therapy since lower doses can then be used to effectively treat menopausal symptoms after a full assessment of the risks and benefits. Hormone therapy does not prevent pregnancy.
- Miller TA, Allen RH, Kaunitz AM, Cwiak CA. Contraception for midlife women: a review. Menopause 2018;25(7):817-827.
- Curtis KM, Jatlaoui TC, Tepper NK, et al. U.S. selected practice recommendations for contraceptive use, 2016. MMWR Recomm Rep 2016;65:1-66.
- Long ME, Faubion SS, MacLaughlin KL, Pruthi S, Casey PM. Contraception and hormonal management in the perimenopause. J Womens Health (Larchmt) 2015;24(1):3-10.
About the Author:
Linli Fung, PharmD is a PGY1 acute care pharmacy practice resident at UC San Diego Health in San Diego, California.