Women interested in using hormonal birth control should consider using the patch. The side effects of the birth control patch are typically mild and range from spotting to cramping to headaches and usually go away within a few weeks.
How Does the Patch Work?
The birth control patch is a thin plastic square that looks like an adhesive bandage. It’s no more than 2 inches across, and you can place it discreetly on the skin of your upper arm, back, buttocks, or stomach. The patch works by emitting estrogen and progestin, the same hormones you’d find in other birth control methods such as the pill.
The hormones get absorbed directly through your skin and prevent pregnancy by keeping you from ovulating. They also thicken the mucus in your cervix and thin your uterine lining, both of which make it more difficult for sperm to reach and fertilize an egg.
You wear the patch for three weeks, remove it for a week while you’re on your period, then apply a new patch for another three weeks. Always apply a new patch on the same day of the week. You can shower, bathe, and swim while wearing the patch. If it does become loose or fall off for some reason, replace it with a new one. Use a backup form of birth control such as condoms if the patch has been off for at least 24 hours.
The patch is at least 91 percent effective when used properly.
How to Apply the Patch
For the patch to be most effective and have the least chance of causing side effects such as skin irritation, it’s important you apply it properly. Follow these steps:
- Tear along the edge of the packaging to open the pouch containing the patch.
- Peel the foil packaging apart, and lay it flat.
- Lift a corner of the patch (this is easiest using your fingernail), and peel it and its clear plastic liner away from the packaging.
- Peel the clear plastic lining away without touching the patch’s adhesive (sticky) surface.
- Place the sticky side of the patch on clean, dry skin that doesn’t have any lotions, creams, makeup, or other substances on it.
- Press on the full surface and edges of the patch firmly for 10 seconds.
Inspect your patch every day to make sure it’s still stuck securely to your skin. When it’s time to remove the patch, throw it away in a secure trash can — not down the toilet — where kids and pets can’t reach it.
As with any form of birth control, the patch comes with primarily mild side effects that typically go away with time. These include:
- Spotting or breakthrough bleeding, which can happen when you first start on the patch but will resolve in a few weeks
- Skin irritation at the patch site
- Breast and nipple soreness can occur, but the pain is mild and temporary
- Menstrual cramps
- Weight gain and fluid retention. This side effect can usually be managed by being physically active and eating a healthy diet
- Mood alterations, which can range from anxiety to depression
More rare symptoms include blood clots and high blood pressure. Blood clots may occur in the legs and sometimes travel to the lungs, which is why most medical providers recommend that women with a risk of stroke or heart disease do not wear the patch. The risk of clot formation can be reduced through the use of compression stockings, especially when traveling long distances. Women who smoke are also at greater risk of heart attack, blood clots, and stroke from wearing the patch. Some women might also develop high blood pressure, though this side effect is rare and reverses when the patch is discontinued.
Most side effects subside within a few weeks. If they don’t, contact your healthcare provider.
Also remember that the patch does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Condoms are the only form of birth control that can prevent STIs.
The benefits of having the patch might outweigh the mild side effects and include:
- Ease of use
- Only having to remember to change it every three weeks
- Lighter and more regular periods
- Less acne
- Milder menstrual cramps
- Less risk of developing some cancers
Other Birth Control Options
If any of your side effects persist, you might need to change your method of birth control. Other options include:
- Pill – Estrogen and progestin combination pills or progestin pills are 91-99 percent effective when taken every day.
- Ring – This is a vaginal ring you insert into in your vagina, where it releases hormones for three weeks at a time. After three weeks, you must take it out while on your period and a week later replace it. This method is at least 91 percent effective.
- Shot – Depending on the brand, you or your healthcare provider can inject the birth control shot into your upper thigh or stomach area every three months. This method is at least 94 percent effective.
- IUD – Intrauterine devices can be placed in your uterus by a medical provider and, depending on the brand and whether they’re hormonal or nonhormonal, last three to 10 years. Both types are more than 99% effective.
- Barrier methods – These forms of birth control include condoms, sponges, diaphragms, and cervical caps. You must remember to use them every time you have sex, and their efficacy ranges from 76-88 percent.
The birth control patch is a highly effective, safe, and easy-to-use form of birth control. Its side effects are mild and short-lived, but if you have concerns or experience ongoing issues, talk to your healthcare provider.