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About the Birth Control Patch

Talking to your kids about sex can be daunting, no matter how close you are. But discussing issues like abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and birth control can help lower teens' risk of an unintended pregnancy or contracting an STD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports sex education that includes information about both abstinence and birth control. Research has shown that this information doesn't increase kids' level of sexual activity, but actually promotes and increases the proper use of birth control methods among sexually active teens.

How and when you discuss sex and birth control is up to you. Providing the facts is vital, but it's also wise to tell your kids where you stand. Remember, by approaching these issues like any other health topics, not as something dirty or embarrassing, you increase the odds that your kids will feel comfortable coming to you with any questions and problems. As awkward as it might feel, answer questions honestly. And if you don't know the answers, it's OK to say so, then find out and report back.

If you have questions about how to talk with your son or daughter about sex, consider consulting your doctor. Lots of parents find this tough to tackle, and a doctor may offer some helpful perspective.

What Is the Birth Control Patch?

The birth control patch is a thin, beige, 1¾-inch (4½-centimeter) square patch that sticks to the skin. It releases hormones through the skin into the bloodstream to prevent pregnancy.

How Does the Patch Work?

The combination of the hormones progesterone and estrogen in the patch prevents ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovaries during a girl's monthly cycle). If an egg isn't released, a woman can't get pregnant because there's nothing for the male's sperm to fertilize.

The hormones in the patch also thicken the cervical mucus (the mucus produced by cells in the cervix). The cervix is the part of the uterus that sits within the vagina and acts as the opening to the uterus. This makes it difficult for sperm to enter the uterus and reach any eggs that may have been released. The hormones in the patch can also sometimes affect the lining of the uterus so that if the egg is fertilized it will have a hard time attaching to the wall of the uterus.

Like other birth control methods that use hormones, such as the birth control pill or ring, the birth control patch is used based on a young woman's monthly menstrual cycle. She applies the patch on the first day of her menstrual cycle or the first Sunday after her menstrual cycle begins. She will change the patch on her skin once a week for 3 weeks in a row. (The patch should be applied to one of four areas: the abdomen, buttocks, upper arm, or upper torso — except for the breasts.) On the fourth week, no patch is worn, and the menstrual period should start during this time. It is important to use an additional form of contraception during the first 7 days on the patch to prevent pregnancy.

A new patch should be applied on the same day every week to ensure that it keeps working effectively. For example, if the first patch is applied on a Monday, patches should always be applied on a Monday. When it's time to change the patch, the old one should be pulled off first, before applying a new patch. The new patch should be placed on a different area from the old patch (but still on one of the four recommended areas) to avoid skin irritation. And any skin that is red, irritated, or cut should be avoided.

If a patch becomes loose and falls off or if a woman forgets to apply a new patch on the right day, she should consult the labeling information or a doctor about what to do. A backup method of birth control may be necessary for a while, such as condoms, or she might need to stop having sex for a while to protect against pregnancy. Also, if a young woman stops using the patch for any reason, she will need to begin using another method of birth control, usually after 24 hours of removing the last patch.

It's OK to participate in regular activities like swimming and exercise while wearing the patch. It can also get wet in the shower or in the bath. However, the patch should not be moved or removed until the week is over (pulling the patch off to reposition or move it may cause it to lose some of its stickiness and it might fall off easily). If the patch does not stick well, a replacement patch should be applied. A girl wearing a patch shouldn't try to change its size by trimming it or try to attach it with tape.

The patch should not be applied over makeup, creams, lotions, powder, or other skin products as these may prevent it from sticking well. (Skin products may also affect how hormones are absorbed by the skin.)

How Well Does the Patch Work?

Ongoing studies suggest the birth control patch is as effective as the birth control pill. That means that about 8 out of 100 couples will have an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use. Of course, a woman's chance of getting pregnant depends on whether she uses the patch correctly. Delaying or missing a weekly application or removing a patch too early reduces its effectiveness and increases the chance of pregnancy.

For young women who weigh more than 198 pounds (90 kilograms), the contraceptive patch may be less effective in preventing pregnancy. If a young woman has any health conditions or is taking any medications, that might interfere with the patch. How effective the patch is at preventing pregnancy also depends on whether the girl finds it convenient to use, and whether she remembers to wear it correctly all the time.

Protection Against STDs

The birth control patch does not protect against STDs. Couples having sex must always use condoms along with the birth control patch to protect against STDs.

Abstinence (not having sex) is the only method that always prevents pregnancy and STDs.

Possible Side Effects

The birth control patch is a safe and effective method of birth control. Most young women who use the patch have no side effects. Smoking cigarettes while using the patch can increase a girl's risk of certain side effects, which is why health professionals advise those who use the patch not to smoke.

The side effects that some women have while using the patch are similar to those experienced with the birth control pill. These may include:

Other possible side effects seen in patch users include:

Many of these side effects are mild and tend to disappear after 2 or 3 months.

Who Uses the Patch?

The birth control patch may be a good choice for sexually active young women who weigh less than 198 pounds (90 kilograms) and find it difficult to remember to take a pill every day or who have difficulty swallowing pills.

Not all women can — or should — use the birth control patch. In some cases, medical or other conditions make the use of the patch less effective or more risky. For example, it is not recommended for women who have had blood clots, severe high blood pressure, certain types of cancers, certain types of migraine headaches, or diabetes with certain complications. Girls who have had unexplained vaginal bleeding (bleeding that is not during their periods) or who suspect they may be pregnant should talk to their doctors, discontinue using the patch, and use another form of birth control in the meantime.

Girls who are interested in learning more about the possible health benefits and risks of different types of birth control, including the patch, should talk to a doctor or other health professional.

Where Is the Patch Available?

A doctor or a nurse practitioner must prescribe the patch. He or she will ask about a girl's health and family medical history, and may also do a complete physical exam, including a blood pressure measurement and a pelvic exam.

If the patch is prescribed, the doctor or nurse will also provide instructions on how to use it. Girls who use the patch may be asked to return within a few months for a blood pressure measurement and to ensure that there are no problems. After that, a doctor may recommend routine exams once or twice a year or as needed.

How Much Does the Patch Cost?

The patch usually costs between $15-$50 a month, although health and family planning clinics (such as Planned Parenthood) might sell them for less. In addition, the birth control patch and doctor's visits are covered by many health insurance plans.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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