What Is the Birth Control Patch?

Find out if this method of preventing pregnancy is right for you
birth control patch on woman's arm

If you want to avoid getting pregnant, birth control is a must. As far as contraceptives go, the birth control pill is an A-list celebrity. But don’t overlook her less-famous and just as talented cousin: the birth control patch.

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“Any woman looking for an effective contraceptive should consider the patch,” says Ob/Gyn Betsy Patterson, MD.

Dr. Patterson explains how the patch works, how to use it and whether it’s the right choice for you.

How does the birth control patch work?

The birth control patch is a small bandage that you stick on your skin. Once attached, it releases the hormones estrogen and progestin into your system.

“These are the same two hormones found in most birth control pills,” says Dr. Patterson. “With the patch, they’re just delivered through the skin instead of in a pill form.”

Two different brands of the patch are available in the U.S. with a doctor’s prescription. Both contain estrogen and progesterone and work the same way. Stick the patch onto your lower back, arm or abdomen and it releases a steady dose of the hormones.

Your body absorbs the hormones, and they prevent your ovaries from releasing any eggs. The patch also thickens cervical mucus so that if an egg does manage to slip through (unlikely), sperm would have trouble reaching it.

Birth control patch effectiveness

The patch does a great job of preventing pregnancy. When used correctly, it prevents pregnancy in more than 99 of every 100 women. That’s about as effective as the pill.

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Like the pill, though, the patch may not work as well if you’re taking specific antibiotics or certain other medications (such as antiviral drugs). If you’re taking other meds, talk to your doctor about whether they will affect your birth control. 

Birth control patch side effects

Most forms of hormonal birth control — including the patch, pill and ring — can cause similar side effects, including:

  • Nausea.
  • Breast tenderness.
  • Irregular bleeding or spotting.
  • Increased risk of blood clotting problems.

Side effects like sore breasts and spotting are most common during the first few weeks or months that you use the patch, Dr. Patterson says. After that, they typically fade away as your body gets used to the hormones.

Who is at risk of blood clots?

The risk of blood clotting is a bigger concern for some women. Overall, the risk is quite low in women using the patch, Dr. Patterson says. (As she points out, the risk of blood clots is much greater in pregnant women than it is in women using the patch to prevent pregnancy.)

However, the patch does have a slightly higher risk of clots compared to the pill. For that reason, avoid it if you:

  • Smoke.
  • Have diabetes.
  • Have a history of blood clots.
  • Had a heart attack or stroke.
  • Have a body mass index (BMI) over 30.

“For women with a higher risk of blood clotting diseases, there are safer alternatives, like low-dose birth control pills,” Dr. Patterson says.

“Good” side effects

Not all side effects of the birth control patch are negative. In fact, some women use the patch mainly for the other benefits that go along with it, like:

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How to use the birth control patch

The patch is easy to use:

  1. Clean your skin: Make sure your skin is dry before applying the patch, too. Don’t use lotions or creams since they can prevent the patch from sticking.
  2. Find a sticking spot: Where do you put the birth control patch? That may depend on the brand you choose. Both types can be placed on the torso or upper buttocks. One of the brands can also be stuck on your upper arm. Read the directions to choose the best spot for you.
  3. Set a reminder: Make a note on your calendar or set an alert on your phone to change the patch every week. “Remove the old patch and replace it with a new one on the same day each week,” Dr. Patterson says.
  4. Use backup contraception (at first): You’ll need this for the first two weeks. After that, you can rely on the patch to avoid getting pregnant. (Remember, though, the pill doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections, so plan accordingly.)
  5. Go about your day: Feel free to swim, shower or take a long, hot bubble bath. Your patch should stay put. (If it does happen to come off, ask your doctor or pharmacist for an extra one and simply reattach it.)
  6. Take a week off: Apply a new patch every week for three weeks in a row. On the fourth week, leave it off. That’s the week you get your period. Some women prefer to place a new patch that fourth week and skip their period. Technically, that can work — but you might experience some breakthrough bleeding. “If you want to try to skip your period, talk to your doctor first,” Dr. Patterson advises.
  7. Change spots: When you apply a new patch, put it in a slightly different spot than the last one. That helps prevent skin irritation under the adhesive.

What happens if you forget to replace the patch on time?

“There’s some wiggle room,” Dr. Patterson says. “If you forgot to put a new patch on, put it on as soon as you remember, within 48 hours.” If it’s been longer than 48 hours, use backup birth control for two weeks to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

Birth control patch pros and cons

Is the birth control patch a good choice for you? If you’re healthy and don’t have any risk of blood clotting problems, the patch may be a great option, Dr. Patterson says.

She recommends the patch for women who:

  • Have an irregular work schedule, like shift workers, who might have trouble taking the pill at the same time each day.
  • Are forgetful or don’t want to remember to take a daily pill.
  • Experience spotting or irregular bleeding while taking the pill. “Because the patch releases hormones continuously throughout the day, it can cause less spotting than a pill you take once a day,” Dr. Patterson explains.

On the other hand, you might want to skip the patch if you:

  • Have eczema or very sensitive skin.
  • Don’t like the idea of a visible patch on your body. “The pill can be a little more discreet,” Dr. Patterson says.

Women respond differently to the various types of hormonal birth control, so there is no one perfect method. Some love the patch. Others prefer the pill or the ring. It might take some trial and error to find the best birth control method for you. But isn’t it great to have options?  

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