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Drug interactions: OCs, AEDs, and the risk of pregnancy

Studies have shown that the most commonly used antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) reduce blood levels of oral contraceptives (OCs) by about 40%. But how many physicians know this? After seeing five epileptic patients in two years at Johns Hopkins Hospital with unexpected and inconvenient pregnancies that occurred during OC and AED therapies, Krauss et al decided to conduct a national survey to see how aware physicians are of the interactions between antiepileptic drugs and oral contraceptives. They were interested to find out how many physicians know that hepatic enzyme-inducing AEDs increase the metabolism of oral contraceptives, thus reducing blood levels. They also wanted to find out if physicians know that antiepileptic drugs increase the risk of birth defects two- to threefold (or more in high-risk patients).

The Johns Hopkins team sent questionnaires to 1,000 neurologists and 1,000 obstetricians; the response rate was 15.5%. Although 91% of the neurologists and 75% of the obstetricians reported that they treat epileptic women of childbearing age, only 4% of the neurologists and none of the obstetricians knew which of the six most commonly used antiepileptic drugs induce the more rapid metabolism of oral contraceptive, and which do not. Yet, 27% of the neurologists and 21% of the obstetricians reported that OC failures occurred in their patients during AED therapy. In addition, almost half of neurologists and one fourth of obstetricians underestimated the risks of birth defects for women taking antiepileptic drugs.

Certain AEDs-phenytoin, phenobarbital, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, primidone, and ethosuximide-induce the cytochrome P450 enzymes that metabolize synthetic estrogens (e.g., ethinyl estradiol and mestranol), causing a 40% reduction in serum levels. In addition, free progestin levels are decreased as a result of increased synthesis of hormone- binding globulins. The antiepileptic drugs valproic acid, gabapentin, vigabatrin, lamotrigine, topiramate, and tiagabine do not appear to induce hepatic P450 enzymes and are unlikely to interfere with oral contraceptives. The effect of felbamate on oral contraceptives is still under investigation.

The recommendation for women on antiepileptic drugs is to increase the oral contraceptive dose to 50 mcg estradiol, particularly if breakthrough bleeding occurs. However, according to Krauss et al, pregnancy may occur even at the highest dose level, sometimes with no warning of irregular bleeding. Because high doses increase the risk of thromboembolism (particularly in smokers and women over age 35), other forms of contraception should be considered as an alternative to oral contraceptives. An effective choice is the depot form of medroxyprogesterone (Depo-Provera), a potent contraceptive that has not been associated with failures due toantiepileptic drugs . By contrast, the levonorgestrol implant (Norplant) is not an effective alternative, according to Krauss et al. More than 30 unplanned pregnancies have occurred in women on AEDs who used Norplant.

“Our survey suggests that a large number of women in the United States with epilepsy are at risk for unplanned pregnancies while taking oral contraceptives,” said the Johns Hopkins investigators. Women with epilepsy should discuss reproductive issues with both a neurologist (who may be more familiar with the effects of antiepileptic drugs on oral contraceptives) and an obstetrician (who may be more familiar with the risks of birth defects).

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