Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(10):2401-2402

What is diethylstilbestrol?

Diethylstilbestrol (say: die-eth-el-still-bess-troll), or DES, is a man-made estrogen. Between 1938 and 1971, millions of women in the United States were given DES to keep them from losing their baby or giving birth too early. DES was used in other countries until at least the early 1980s.

In 1971, researchers found that women who were exposed to DES before they were born (these women are called DES daughters) were more likely to get a certain kind of cancer of the vagina and cervix.

Has DES caused any other problems?

Yes. Women who took DES during pregnancy have a slightly higher risk of getting breast cancer.

Up to one third of DES daughters have reproductive tract problems. These problems increase their risk of not being able to get pregnant, losing a baby, or having a baby too early. However, most of these women have no problem getting pregnant, and they deliver their babies without problems.

The sons of women who took DES during pregnancy (called DES sons) have a higher risk of some reproductive tract problems, but they seem to have normal fertility.

How do I know if I was exposed to DES?

If you were pregnant between 1938 and 1971 and think that you may have taken a prescription medicine during your pregnancy, try to get your medical records from the doctors who took care of you. Remember, DES was used in some other countries until the early 1980s.

If you were born between 1938 and 1971, ask your mother if she remembers taking any prescription medicine during her pregnancy.

I took DES during pregnancy. What should I do?

The increase in the breast cancer rate is small. You can perform regular breast self-exams. And after you are 50 years old, have your doctor examine your breasts once a year and get a mammogram every year.

I am a DES daughter. What special health care needs do I have?

Be certain to tell your family doctor that you were exposed to DES.

If you have not had a pelvic exam before, your doctor will want you to have one. This exam should include a special exam of the tissues of your vagina and cervix. This special exam is called colposcopy (say: call-poss-kah-pee).

Have pelvic exams and Pap smears every year. You might have a little trouble getting pregnant. But most DES daughters are able to get pregnant and have healthy babies.

I am a DES son. What special health care needs do I have?

Have regular prostate tests and do regular self-exams of your testicles. You also should report any urinary or genital symptoms to your doctor.

More Information About DES

For more information, you can contact these groups:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s DES Update

National Cancer Institute: Questions & Answers About DES

  • Web site:

DES Action USA

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