Drug Safety

, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 21–37 | Cite as

Oral Contraceptives

Are Drug Interactions of Clinical Significance?
  • Gillian M. Shenfield
Review Article Drug Experience


There is a large quantity of literature on drug interactions with oral contraceptive (OC) steroids although their incidence is not known. The potential clinical significance of some interactions makes it important for all prescribing doctors and dentists to have some knowledge of the topic.

Interactions may be divided into those in which OC effectiveness is impaired, causing breakthrough bleeding or pregnancy, those in which OC activity is enhanced by other drugs and those in which OCs interfere with the metabolism or activity of other therapeutic agents.

Consideration of their pharmacology indicates that impairment of OC effect is most likely to be due to interference with ethinylestradiol. This is because this compound is sulphated in the gut wall, hydroxylated and glucuronidated in the liver, and undergoes enterohepatic recirculation. The progestogens are only metabolised in the liver and have no significant enterohepatic recirculation. Protein binding interactions are rarely of clinical importance.

OC plasma concentrations may be reduced by induction of hepatic metabolism in the case of griseofulvin, rifampicin (rifampin) and several anticonvulsant drugs; valproic acid (sodium valproate) does not have this effect. Antibiotics may interfere with enterohepatic recirculation of ethinylestradiol and reduce plasma levels of active hormone. This is probably only of significance in a subgroup of women who may sometimes be suspected on history, but cannot be identified by any diagnostic test. Reasons for differences between case reports and formal studies of interactions with antibiotics are discussed.

Plasma concentrations of ethinylestradiol may be increased by ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and paracetamol (acetaminophen) which compete with it for sulphation in the gut wall. Theoretically, problems may arise if these agents are stopped suddenly. Imidazole antifungal agents can inhibit ethinylestradiol metabolism and increase its plasma concentrations but the clinical significance of this is unknown.

OCs have been shown to inhibit metabolism of many therapeutic drugs and increase their plasma concentrations. This may be of clinical significance in the case of benzodiazepines which are hydroxylated in the liver, but clinical effects are less certain with the other agents. OCs may induce metabolism of other drugs which are glucuronidated, including some benzodiazepines and analgesics. The clinical significance of this type of interaction is also unknown.

It is suggested that all prescribers should remember to ask about OCs when taking a drug history and to consider the possibility of interactions with other drugs.


Oral Contraceptive Griseofulvin Levonorgestrel Ethinylestradiol Desogestrel 
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Copyright information

© Adis International Limited 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gillian M. Shenfield
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Clinical PharmacologyRoyal North Shore HospitalSt LeonardsAustralia

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