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The contraceptive patch – everything you need to know

maddie

by Maddie Braidwood · July 20, 2020

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Reviewed by Dr Becky Mawson on Oct 28, 2021

Is it a plaster? Is it a nicotine patch? No...it's the contraceptive patch. Get the lowdown on this underrated combined hormonal contraception method, including what to do if your patch falls off.

The contraceptive patch is a method that doesn’t sit high on the popularity scale and because of this, it can cause a lot of confusion. It’s regularly mistaken for a nicotine patch, a plaster, even a bit of plastic that’s accidentally attached itself to someone.

This underrated method is actually a strong competitor in the world of contraceptives and here’s why…

What is the contraceptive patch?

The patch is a thin, beige plaster that contains the same hormones as the combined contraceptive pill –  oestrogen and progestogen. The patch is changed weekly which may mean that you are less likely to forget to take it, as can happen with daily contraceptive pills.

How effective is the contraceptive patch?

When we look at how effective a contraceptive method is we look at typical and perfect use. At the Lowdown, we have come up with an easy guide about different contraceptives to help you to find the most effective option.  If we look at 100 sexually active women using the patch for a year, with perfect use less than 1 will get pregnant, but if we look at typical use then 7 women will get pregnant during that year.

The patch may be less effective for people who weigh more than 90kg. This does not mean you cannot use it, but extra precautions such as condoms are recommended.

How do I start using the patch?

You can start using the patch at any time in your cycle. If you stick it on within the first 5 days of your period starting, you will be protected from pregnancy straight away (if you have a short cycle then speak to your doctor or nurse). Any other time in your cycle and you’ll need to use condoms or other contraception for seven days. Speak to a health professional for advice if you are switching from another hormonal method of contraception. 

You can start to use the patch 21 days after you give birth if you’re not breastfeeding and have no other risk factors. If you are breastfeeding, you can use the patch after your baby is 6 weeks old.

A new patch is applied once a week, every week, for three weeks (21 days). You then stop using the patch for seven days (a patch-free week). During this week you get a period-like withdrawal bleed. After seven patch-free days, you apply a new patch on the eighth day. It’s really important that you don’t have more than seven days without the patch – you should do this even if you’re still bleeding.

Can I use the patch without breaks?

As with the combined contraceptive pill, you can use the patch continuously or back-to-back. Our continuous pill taking guide explains how to reduce the number of breaks or withdrawal bleeds, which can help if you have problem periods or just want to avoid a bleed.

Where do I put the contraceptive patch?

To apply, stick the first patch in the packet onto your skin – you can stick it on most areas as long as the skin is dry, clean and not very hairy. Don’t stick it on your breasts; sore, irritated skin; or areas that it’s likely to rub against your clothes. People tend to stick it on their bum, upper arms or lower back.

What do I do if the contraceptive patch falls off?

The contraceptive patch is very sticky and it should stay on during a bath, shower or swimming but some people report having issues with them sticking.

However, if the patch does fall off, the next steps will be dependent on how long it’s been off for and how many days the patch was on before it came off.

If it’s been off for less than 48 hours:

  • Stick it back on as soon as possible if it still has its stick
  • If it’s not sticky, put a new patch on (do not try to hold the old patch in place with a plaster or bandage)
  • Continue to use your patch as normal and change your patch on your normal change day
  • You’re protected against pregnancy and won’t need additional contraception if it was on correctly for 7 days before it came off
  • But if the patch fell off after using it for 6 days or less, use additional contraception, such as condoms, for 7 days.

If it’s been off for 48 hours or more, or you’re not sure how long:

  • Apply a new patch as soon as possible and start a new patch cycle (this will now be day one of your new cycle)
  • Use additional contraception for 7 days

Ask your healthcare professional (for example your GP, nurse, pharmacist or sexual health clinical) for advice if you’ve had unprotected sex in the previous few days as you may need emergency contraception.

What are the benefits of using the contraceptive patch?

  • Easy to use and doesn’t interrupt sex
  • Doesn’t need to be taken every day
  • Can make periods regular, lighter and less painful
  • It can help with premenstrual symptoms
  • It may improve acne and help with symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome

What are the risks of using the contraceptive patch?

One rare but serious risk of any combined contraceptive method is blood clots, this includes deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. The risk of blood clots is highest when you first start a combined contraceptive, mainly as it might highlight an underlying blood clotting problem that you may have or be due to hormonal change to proteins in your blood. It is also important that if you have a long period of immobility such as a long-haul flight, you are aware of the increased risk of blood clots.

While the risk is very low, look out for the symptoms of a blood clot. These include stabbing pains or swelling in one leg, pain on breathing or coughing, coughing up blood, sudden breathlessness or chest pain.

The combined patch may also increase your blood pressure so you will need to have this checked before you are prescribed the pill and normally once a year whilst using it. Use of combined hormonal contraception is also associated with small increased risks of breast cancer and cervical cancer which reduce with time after stopping. 

For more information about the range of contraception available, have a browse of our contraception pages.

What are the side effects when using the contraceptive patch?

As with all contraceptive methods, people may experience a range of different side effects or none at all. 

The below side effects are some of the most frequently reported from users of the contraceptive patch;

  • Tender breasts 
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Period like cramping 
  • Enlarged breasts 
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Vaginal dryness

Take a look at our contraceptive patch side effects to see what users said about changes to their mood, bleeding, sex drive, and weight. You can also check out our reviews page for stories about how other users got on with the patch.

Who shouldn’t use the contraceptive patch?

As with all combined contraceptive, there are some people who should avoid this method which includes;

  • Raised BMI above 35
  • Previous blood clots or strong family history of blood clots
  • Migraines with aura
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking history and over age 35

How do I get the contraceptive patch?

You can get the patch free of charge from your GP or sexual health clinics. You can also purchase it via The Lowdown website. 

Does the patch come in different colours?

The patch is a pale beige colour and unfortunately does not come in different skin tones. The team at the Lowdown find this unacceptable and are keen to challenge the brand to be more diverse and inclusive of different skin colours. Watch this space!

Tags
  1. FSRH Clinical Guideline: Combined Hormonal Contraception (January 2019, Amended November 2020)

  2. Bateson, D. et al. Risk of venous thromboembolism in women taking the combined oral contraceptive: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Volume 45, No.1, January/February 2016 Pages 59-64

  3. NHS. Contraceptive patch.

  4. FSRH Clinical Guideline: Contraception After Pregnancy (January 2017, amended October 2020)

     

Maddie is an English Language and Linguistics graduate who is passionate about writing. She writes fun and informative content on the weird and wonderful sides of contraception!