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Abstract

Objective. To examine the relationship between past use of oral contraceptives (OCs) and development of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

Methods. Prospective cohort study of 121,645 women who were followed up every 2 years between 1976 and 1990 as part of the Nurses' Health Study. Women were classified as never users or past users of OCs based on self-report. Incidence of SLE was defined by 1) strict American College of Rheumatology (ACR) classification criteria (⩾4 ACR criteria), 2) ⩾4 ACR criteria and any physician's diagnosis, 3) ⩾4 ACR criteria and diagnosis by an ACR-certified rheumatologist, 4) ⩾3 ACR criteria, or 5) diagnosis by a physician even if the patient did not meet the ACR criteria.

Results. Compared with never users of OCs, and after adjusting for age and ever use of postmenopausal hormones, the relative risk (95% confidence interval [95% CI]) for the incidence of SLE in the women who had definite cases of SLE (⩾4 ACR criteria) (n = 99) was 1.4 (0.9–2.1) for past users of OCs. Using the most stringent case definition (ACR criteria plus a diagnosis of SLE by an ACR member) (n = 58), the relative risk for past users compared with never users was 1.9 (95% CI 1.1–3.3). No relationship was observed between duration of OC use or time since first use and the risk of developing SLE.

Conclusion. Past use of OCs was associated with a slightly increased risk of developing SLE. The decision to use hormonal contraception must be individualized, but the small absolute risk observed for the development of SLE in white women should not be a dominant factor in the decision.