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.
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.
The patch does a great job of preventing pregnancy. When used correctly, it prevents pregnancy in more than 99 of every 100 people. That’s about as effective as the pill.
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.
Most forms of hormonal birth control — including the patch, pill and ring — can cause similar side effects, including:
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.
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 people than it is in those 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:
“For women with a higher risk of blood clotting diseases, there are safer alternatives, like low-dose birth control pills,” Dr. Patterson says.
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:
The patch is easy to use:
“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.
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:
On the other hand, you might want to skip the patch if you:
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?