Contraception guide

The contraceptive patch

A woman can get pregnant if a man’s sperm reaches one of her eggs (ova). Contraception tries to stop this happening by keeping the egg and sperm apart or by stopping egg production. One method of contraception is the patch.

The contraceptive patch is a sticky patch, a bit like a nicotine patch, measuring 5x5cm. It delivers hormones into your body through your skin. In the UK the patch's brand name is Evra.

It contains the same hormones as the combined pill, and it works in the same way. This means that it prevents ovulation (the release of an egg); it thickens cervical mucus, which makes it more difficult for sperm to travel through the cervix; and it thins the womb lining, making it less likely that a fertilised egg will implant there.

At a glance: facts about the patch

  • When used correctly, the patch is more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.
  • Each patch lasts for one week. You change the patch every week for three weeks, then have a week off without a patch.
  • You don't need to think about it every day, and it's still effective if you vomit or have diarrhoea.
  • You can wear the patch in the bath, in the swimming pool and while playing sports.  
  • If you have heavy periods or painful periods the patch can help.
  • The patch can increase blood pressure, and some women get temporary side effects, such as headaches.  
  • Some women develop a blood clot when using the patch but this is rare.
  • The patch may protect against ovarian cancer, womb cancer and colon cancer.
  • The patch may not be suitable for women who smoke and who are 35 or over, or who weigh 90kg (14 stone) or more.
  • The patch does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so using a condom as well will help to protect you against STIs.

How it works

How you use the patch 

When the patch starts to work

What to do if the patch falls off

What to do if you forget to take the patch off 

Bleeding in the patch-free week 

How you use the patch

You can use the contraceptive patch on most areas of your body as long as the skin is clean, dry and not very hairy. 

You apply a new patch once a week (every seven days) for three weeks, and then stop using the patch for seven days. This is known as your patch-free week. During your patch-free week you will get a withdrawal bleed, like a period, although this may not always happen.

After seven patch-free days, you apply a new patch and start the four-week cycle again. Start your new cycle even if you are still bleeding.

You should not stick the patch on:

  • sore or irritated skin 
  • anywhere it may get rubbed off by tight clothing 
  • your breasts

When you first start using the patch, you can vary the position every time you use a new patch to reduce your risk of irritation.

When the patch starts to work

The licence for the patch states that if you start using the patch on the first day of your period, it starts working straight away. This means you can have sex without getting pregnant.

The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare guidance states that if you start using the patch in the first five days of your menstrual cycle, you will be protected and won't need to use additional contraception.

If you start using it on any other day, you need to use an additional form of contraception, such as condoms, for the first seven days.

You can talk to your doctor or nurse for more information about when the patch will start to work, and whether you need to use additional contraception.

What to do if the patch falls off

The contraceptive patch is very sticky and should stay on. It should not come off after a shower, bath, hot tub, sauna or swim, or after exercise.

If the patch does fall off, what you need to do depends on how long it has been off.

If the patch has been off for less than 48 hours:

  • stick your patch back on as soon as possible (if it is still sticky)
  • if it is not sticky, replace it with a new patch (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

If the patch has been off for less than 48 hours before you replace it, you will still be protected against pregnancy and do not need to use additional contraception.

If the patch has been off for 48 hours or more, or you're not sure how long it has been off:

  • 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 another form of contraception, such as condoms, for the next seven days

If you had unprotected sex in the previous few days, you may need emergency contraception. See your GP, nurse or local sexual health (GUM) clinic if you are concerned.

What to do if you forget to take the patch off

If you forget to take the patch off after week one or two, what you need to do depends on how long you have forgotten it.

If it has been on for:

  • Less than 48 hours longer than it should have been – take off the old patch and put on a new one. Continue to use your patch as normal, changing it on your normal change day. You don’t need to use any additional contraception and you are protected against pregnancy. 
  • 48 hours or more longer than it should have been – start a whole new patch cycle by applying a new patch as soon as possible. This is now week one of the patch cycle and you will now have a new day of the week as your start day and change day. Use another method of contraception, such as condoms, for the next seven days. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice if you have had sex in the previous few days and were not using a condom as you may need emergency contraception.

If you forget to take the patch off after week three, take the patch off as soon as possible and start your patch-free break. Start a new patch on your usual start day even if you are bleeding. This means that you will not have a full week of patch-free days. You will be protected against pregnancy and do not need to use any additional contraception. You may or may not bleed on the patch-free days.

Bleeding in the patch-free week

Some women do not always have a bleed in their patch-free week. This is nothing to worry about if you have used the patch properly and have not taken any medication that could affect it.

See your GP or nurse for advice if you are worried, or do a pregnancy test to check if you are pregnant. If you miss more than two bleeds, get medical advice.

Who can use the patch

You can get contraception at:

  • most GP surgeries
  • community contraception clinics
  • some GUM clinics
  • sexual health clinics
  • some young people's services

Find a clinic near you

The contraceptive patch is not suitable for everyone. If you are thinking of using it, your doctor or nurse will need to ask you about your health and your family’s medical history to make sure the patch is suitable for you. It is very important to tell them about any illnesses or operations you have had, or medications you are currently taking.

Conditions and circumstances that may mean you should not use the patch include: 

  • you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant 
  • you are breastfeeding 
  • you smoke and are 35 or over
  • you are 35 or over and stopped smoking less than a year ago 
  • you are very overweight
  • you take certain medicines, such as antibiotics, St John’s Wort or medicines used to treat epilepsytuberculosis (TB) or HIV

You will also not be able to use the patch if you have (or have had) any of the following conditions: 

  • thrombosis (blood clots) in a vein or artery
  • a heart problem or a disease affecting your blood circulatory system (including high blood pressure)
  • migraine with aura (warning signs)
  • breast cancer
  • disease of the liver or gallbladder 
  • diabetes with complications, or diabetes for more than 20 years

Advantages and disadvantages of the patch

If it is used properly, the contraceptive patch is more than 99% effective in stopping you from getting pregnant. This means that if 100 women use the patch according to the instructions, fewer than one will get pregnant in a year. Other advantages of the patch are:

  • it is very easy to use and does not interrupt sex
  • unlike the combined oral contraceptive pill, you do not have to think about it every day – you only have to remember to change the patch once a week
  • the hormones from the contraceptive patch do not need to be absorbed by the stomach, so it is just as effective even if you vomit or have diarrhoea
  • like the pill, it tends to make your periods more regular, lighter and less painful
  • it can help with premenstrual symptoms
  • it may reduce the risk of cancer of the ovaries, womb and bowel
  • it may reduce the risk of fibroidsovarian cysts and non-cancerous breast disease

Some women may find that the contraceptive patch has some disadvantages and may wish to use a different form of contraception.

Some potential disadvantages of the patch are:

  • It may be visible. 
  • It can cause skin irritation, itching and soreness.
  • It does not protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so you may need to use condoms as well.
  • Some women get mild temporary side effects when they first start using the patch, such as headaches, nausea (sickness), breast tenderness and mood changes. These side effects usually settle down after a few months.
  • Bleeding between periods (breakthrough bleeding) and spotting (very light, irregular bleeding) is common in the first few cycles of using the patch. This is nothing to worry about if you are using the patch properly, and you will still be protected against pregnancy.

Some medicines can make the patch less effective. If you are prescribed new medicine or are buying an over-the-counter medicine, ask the doctor or pharmacist for advice. You may need to use an extra form of contraception while you are taking the medicine, and for 28 days afterwards.

Risks of using the patch

There is a very small risk of some serious side effects when you use a hormonal contraceptive, such as the contraceptive patch or combined oral contraceptive pill.

Blood clots

The patch slightly increases your chance of developing a blood clot, which can block a vein (venous thrombosis) or an artery (arterial thrombosis, which may lead to a heart attack or stroke). If you have had a blood clot before, do not use the patch.

Your risk of blood clots is higher during the first year of using the patch. Your risk is also higher if:

  • you smoke
  • you are very overweight 
  • you are immobile (unable to move) or use a wheelchair
  • you have severe varicose veins 
  • a close family member had a venous thrombosis before they were 45 years old

The risk of arterial thrombosis is greatest if:

  • you smoke
  • you are diabetic
  • you have high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • you are very overweight 
  • you regularly have migraines with aura (warning signs)
  • a close family member had a heart attack or stroke before they were 45

Cancer

Current research suggests that people who use hormonal contraception, such as the contraceptive patch, are at a slightly increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared with people who do not use hormonal contraception. However, further research is needed to provide more definite evidence.

Research also suggests there is a small increase in your risk of developing cervical cancer with long-term use of oestrogen and progestogen hormonal contraception.

For most women, the benefits of the patch outweigh the risks. However, discuss all risks and benefits with your GP or nurse before starting to use the patch. You will not be allowed to use the patch if you are considered to be at a higher risk of serious side effects.

Where you can get it

Most types of contraception are available free in the UK. Contraception is free to all women and men through the NHS. When you first get the contraceptive patch you will be given a three-month supply to see how you get on with it. If there are no problems, you can be prescribed the patch for six months to a year.

Places where you can get contraception include:

  • most GP surgeries – talk to your GP or practice nurse
  • community contraception clinics
  • some genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics 
  • sexual health clinics – they also offer contraceptive and STI testing services
  • some young people’s services (call 0300 123 7123 for more information)

Find your nearest sexual health clinic by searching by postcode or town.

Contraception services are free and confidential, including for people under the age of 16.

If you're under 16 and want contraception, the doctor, nurse or pharmacist won't tell your parents (or carer) as long as they believe you fully understand the information you're given and your decisions. Doctors and nurses work under strict guidelines when dealing with people under 16.

They'll encourage you to consider telling your parents, but they won't make you. The only time that a professional might want to tell someone else is if they believe you're at risk of harm, such as abuse. The risk would need to be serious, and they would usually discuss this with you first.

Page last reviewed: 10/01/2013

Next review due: 10/01/2015

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