Intended for healthcare professionals


Ectopic pregnancy with oral contraceptive use has been overlooked

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 12 August 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:450
  1. Walter L Larimore, associate clinical professor (wlarimore{at},
  2. Joseph B Stanford, assistant professor (jstanford{at}
  1. Department of Family Medicine, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 34744-5817, USA
  2. Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84132, USA

    EDITOR—In their review of ectopic pregnancy, Tay et al report that previous female sterilisation and current use of an intrauterine contraceptive device are risk factors only when patients with ectopic pregnancy are compared with pregnant controls and not with non-pregnant women.1 However, we published a review on the effects of oral contraceptives after fertilisation, in which we reviewed data indicating that the ratio of extrauterine to intrauterine pregnancies is increased for women taking combined oral contraceptives and progestogen only pills, compared with control groups of pregnant women not using oral contraceptives.2

    The increased odds ratio of ectopic pregnancy in women taking the combined pill (compared with pregnant controls) was found to be 4.5 (95% confidence interval 2.1 to 9.6)3 and 13.9 (1.8 to 108.3)4 in studies including a total of 484 women with ectopic pregnancies and 289 pregnant controls. We used these odds ratios to estimate that in the studied populations the absolute rate of ectopic pregnancy in women using combined pills would range from 0.7 to 19.9 ectopic pregnancies per 1000 woman years. We could, however, find only one study, from Zimbabwe, that reported an absolute risk of ectopic pregnancy in women taking the combined pill—an ectopic rate of 0.5 per 1000 women years.

    The increased odds ratio of ectopic pregnancy for a woman taking progestogen only pills (compared with pregnant controls) was reported in one study to be 79.1 (8.5 to 735.1),5 which we used to estimate an absolute risk of 4–79 ectopic pregnancies per 1000 woman years. This prediction is reasonably concordant with the reported absolute rates of ectopic pregnancy in women taking progestogen-only pills of 3–20 per 1000 woman years.

    Like Tay et al, and most researchers in this field, we restricted our review to studies using pregnant controls because when considering the situation where a woman became pregnant during the use of a birth control agent one should focus on pregnant controls.

    We believe that the association of ectopic pregnancies with oral contraceptives has been overlooked in the medical literature on ectopic pregnancy and that most who prescribe or dispense oral contraceptives are not aware of this association. If a woman who is taking an oral contraceptive presents with pelvic pain and unusual vaginal bleeding, we would recommend that the possibility of ectopic pregnancy be ruled out by using the wise and practical clinical approach suggested by Tay et al.


    • Competing interests None declared.


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