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What’s the Difference Between the Patch and the Pill?

While both the birth control patch and birth control pills are hormonal methods designed to prevent pregnancy, the birth control pill must be taken daily while the patch is applied each week. Both are equally effective at preventing pregnancy and come with a slight risk of similar side effects.

What Are Birth Control Pills and How Do They Prevent Pregnancy?

Birth control pills have been a hormonal birth control method used since the 1960s. There are combination pills that contain both progestin and estrogen and progestin-only pills, often referred to as mini pills. Hormonal birth control pills prevent pregnancy in a number of ways. They work by:

  • Preventing the release of eggs from your ovaries
  • Thickening the cervical mucus so that it is harder for the sperm to travel to reach an egg if one is released
  • Thinning the lining of the uterus so that in the unlikely event an egg does get released and fertilized, it would have a hard time implanting

Side Effects of Birth Control Pills

Birth control pills are considered to be relatively safe, though there are some possible side effects that may cause annoyance or discomfort. Some of the most common side effects associated with birth control pills include:

  • Headaches
  • Spotting or irregular bleeding
  • Breast tenderness
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Changes in mood
  • Weight gain

Most of these side effects are the result of increased hormones in the body, and the symptoms will often subside after using the pills for a few months.

What Is the Contraceptive Patch and How Does It Prevent Against Pregnancy?

The contraceptive patch contains both progestin and estrogen and is placed on the skin where your body will absorb it. You can have the patch placed on one of a few locations, depending on where it is most comfortable for you. Areas where the patch can be placed include:

  • The upper part of your arm
  • On your buttocks
  • On your back
  • On your lower abdomen

Once the patch has been placed, it will release a steady amount of hormones into your bloodstream. Hormones in the patch prevent pregnancy the same way the pill does, by preventing the release of eggs and making an inhospitable environment for sperm to travel in. The patch will be changed each week for three weeks and then removed for a week before the next one is applied. The patch is designed to stay on even when you sweat or take a shower. There is less than a 2% chance that the patch will fall off. If it does, you will need to reapply it. If the patch is off for more than a two-hour period, it is recommended that you use a backup birth control method.

Possible Side Effects of the Contraceptive Patch

Most of the possible side effects of the contraceptive patch are similar to birth control pills and also are likely to lessen as your body becomes used to the increased level of hormones being released. Side effects you may experience with the patch that are not experienced with birth control pills include:

  • A decrease in sex drive
  • Redness and itching where the patch is worn

Though it’s very rare, the patch can also lead to blood clots in the:

  • Legs
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Brain

While both birth control pills and the patch carry an increased risk of blood clots and raised potassium leading to potential heart problems, the reason that the patch is slightly more likely to cause blood clots is because it contains 60% more estrogen than the pill. Even so, the risk of having any heart problems or blood clots is extremely low.

Risks to Consider Before Starting the Pill or the Patch

Some women may be at a higher risk than others to have more serious side effects. These risk factors do not cause side effects but may slightly increase the likelihood of the side effects occurring. If you have any of the risk factors listed below, you should discuss with your health care provider if the risks are worth the rewards. Risk factors for hormonal birth control include:

  • Being over the age of 35.
  • Currently having high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  • Having diabetes that is not well controlled.
  • Having had a heart attack.
  • Being a smoker.
  • Being overweight.
  • Having a previous history of blood clots.
  • Having recently been on bed rest.
  • Recently having surgery.
  • Having a history of liver, breast, or uterine cancer.
  • Suffering from migraines with aura.

You should also be cautious of taking certain medication when on the birth control pill or patch. Some medications that may interact with or make your birth control less effective include:

  • The antibiotic rifampin.
  • The antifungal medication griseofulvin.
  • Medications to treat HIV.
  • Medications to treat seizures.
  • St. John’s Wort.

Things to Consider When Choosing the Right Birth Control Method

There are a few things to consider when determining which birth control method will be the best option to suit your lifestyle. Some things you will want to consider are:

  • How much upkeep you would rather perform to maintain your birth control.
  • What are the possible side effects of each method?
  • Is your method covered by insurance, or will you have to pay for it out of pocket?

As with any type of birth control method, you should always give your body time to adjust before deciding to choose another method. If after a few months you still are experiencing uncomfortable side effects, then it might be time to talk with your health care provider about other methods that may be a better option.

No matter whether you choose the birth control pill or the contraceptive patch, you will be effectively protected against pregnancy. With either method, fewer than one out of 100 will conceive when they use one of these methods properly. Take into consideration the side effects of both, your possible risk factors, and whether you want to have a method that requires daily maintenance or one that only requires attention once a month. If you are still unsure which is right for you, talk to your health care provider to get more information.

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