There are many different options for contraception (birth control) if you do not wish to become pregnant. One group of contraceptives are pills, patches and rings which contain hormones.
What are hormone pills, patches and rings used for?
If you are having sex, but don't want to have a baby, these are some of the contraceptive options available to you. They do not protect you from sexually transmitted infections, so you may wish to consider using a condom as well. However, hormone contraceptive methods are more effective than condoms for stopping you becoming pregnant.
See the separate leaflet called Contraception Methods to see all the options available for contraception - there is a lot of choice.
How do they work?
Contraceptive pills, patches and rings contain hormones. Hormones are chemical substances which our bodies produce to control the way our internal organs and systems work. The hormones in pills, patches and rings are synthetic versions of the natural hormones produced in a woman's ovaries: oestrogen and/or progesterone. These hormones control your monthly cycle, and what is happening in your ovaries and your womb. The way they are formulated in the contraceptives prevents your ovaries releasing eggs and/or the sperm from reaching the egg (by thickening the mucus in your cervix). They also affect the thickness of the inner lining of the womb. More detail is available in the individual leaflets, as linked below.
What are the options?
- The combined oral contraceptive pill. The original "pill", which contains both oestrogen and a progestogen. Read about the combined oral contraceptive (COC) pill.
- The contraceptive patch. The hormones are the same as the COC pill, but you stick it on your skin as a patch, changed every week. Read about the contraceptive patch.
- The contraceptive vaginal ring. Again, the hormones are the same as the COC pill, but they are released slowly from a ring which sits in your vagina, and is changed once a month.Read about the contraceptive vaginal ring.
- The progestogen-only pill. Another tablet, but this one contains just the progestogen and no oestrogen. Read about the progestogen-only pill (POP).
How do I choose between them?
The choice of which contraceptive to use can be difficult as there are so many options. There is no one option which will be right for everyone. You will need to carefully weigh up all the pros and cons for you personally. If you are looking for long-term contraception that you can forget about for several years at a time, it may be better for you to consider the long-acting reversible contraceptive options.
Pills, patches and rings are effective options, but you have to remember to take/change them regularly. If you don't, then they don't work. Some people use the alarm function on a mobile phone to remind them.
You may prefer to try patches and rings, which only have to be changed every week or three weeks respectively, rather than take a tablet every day. Others may find it easier to get into the routine of taking a tablet every day.
A number of women may not be able to take the COC pill or the patch or ring (combined hormone methods) due to existing medical conditions or other risk factors. Women who are breastfeeding a baby who is less than 6 weeks old also should not use combined methods, but they can be used after 6 weeks even if you are still breastfeeding. . For these women, progestogen-only methods are often a good alternative and they are just as effective. There are unwanted side-effects with most methods and one in three women may have irregular bleeding when using progestogen-only methods.
To help you decide:
- Read the separate leaflet called Contraception Methods, which gives an overview of the pros and cons of each method.
- Read each individual leaflet - for example, the combined contraceptive (COC) pill, the contraceptive patch, the contraceptive vaginal ring and the progestogen-only pill (POP).
- Visit your GP or local family planning clinic to discuss your choices further.
Further reading and references
FSRH Clinical Guidance: Combined Hormonal Contraception; Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (January 2019 - amended November 2020)
Sexual and Reproductive Health Services, England (Contraception) 2021/22; NHS digital 2022
Contraception - assessment; NICE CKS, September 2022 (UK access only)
Combined hormonal methods; NICE CKS, January 2021 (UK access only)
Contraception - Progestogen-only methods; NICE CKS, September 2022 (UK access only)
Sexwise; contraception advice and printable leaflets.