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Contraceptive vaginal ring

The vaginal ring is a type of contraception which you insert into your vagina, where it stays for three weeks. You then leave it out for a week before putting in a new one. It contains very similar hormones to the ones that are in the combined pill.

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What is the contraceptive vaginal ring?

The contraceptive vaginal ring is an effective method of contraception. It is a small, thin, flexible ring which is just over 5 cm in diameter that is placed inside the vagina.

It contains two hormones, an oestrogen and a progestogen, just like the combined oral contraceptive (COC) pill and the contraceptive patch. These hormones have effects on your body which protect you from pregnancy. The only contraceptive vaginal ring currently available in the UK is the NuvaRing®. A longer-acting ring which can be left in place for up to a year, known as Annovera® is available in some other parts of the world.

How does a vaginal ring work?

The contraceptive vaginal ring contains two hormones: an oestrogen called ethinyl estradiol and a progestogen called etonogestrel. They are absorbed through the inside of your vagina. A vaginal ring works in three ways to prevent pregnancy:

  • The main way that they stop the user from getting pregnant is by changing the body's hormonal balance so that the ovaries do not produce an egg (ovulate).

  • They cause the mucus made by the neck of the womb (cervix) to thicken and form a mucous plug. This makes it difficult for sperm to get through to the womb (uterus) to fertilise any egg that might have been released.

  • They also make the lining of the womb thinner. This makes it less likely that a fertilised egg will be able to attach to the womb.

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How effective is the vaginal ring?

The contraceptive vaginal ring is effective. Between 3-90 women in 1,000 will become pregnant using this form of contraception for a year. It is about as effective as the COC pill.

How to insert a vaginal ring

When you first use the ring, you place a new ring into your vagina on the first day of your period. It is very flexible and you will be able to squeeze it easily in order to put it in. It is inserted into the vagina until it feels comfortable for the user. If you are unsure how to insert the ring correctly, either look at the leaflet that comes with the packet or ask your family planning clinic, pharmacist or GP for advice.

You can also insert the ring on Day 2-5 of your period and still rely on it straightaway. If you put one in for the first time after Day 5 you cannot rely on it for your contraception for seven days and you should use extra precautions such as a condom for this duration of time.

  • Most people using the vaginal ring leave it in place for three weeks. You should check regularly that it is there during this time.

  • You remove the ring by hooking it out with your finger. It is then disposed of.

  • Exactly one week later, put a new ring in - on the same day of the week as you put it in the first time. (It is only for the first time you use it that you should start on the first day of your period.)

Other options for using your ring

In 2019, The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health (FSRH) changed their guidelines on the use of hormonal contraception, including the ring. Now, there is no need to leave the ring out for a week before putting in a new one. You have the option of:

  • Using the ring for three weeks, having a week off during which you have a bleed and then restarting.

  • Putting a new ring in every three weeks, as soon as you take the old one out.

  • Using several rings without a gap, then having a gap during which you have a bleed.

  • Putting a new ring in after four days, rather than seven days, when the old one has been removed.

These 'tailored regimens' will mean you may have no periods or may have fewer periods. This is completely safe and will not do you any harm. Leaving the ring out for a shorter period before you put a new one in may also reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy.

The side effect is that you are more likely to have irregular bleeding. However, this may settle down if you keep going with your tailored regime.

When you first start using the ring, write down the day of the week somewhere you will remember. That day of the week will always be your 'new ring day' every four weeks.

You can use tampons and have sex safely with it in place. If the ring falls out, re-insert it within three hours.

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Vaginal ring benefits

  • You don't have to remember to take a pill every day. You only need to remember to take your ring out and put a new one in when you are planning to do so according to your tailored regime.

  • It doesn't interfere with sex.

  • The hormones are absorbed through the vagina, rather than being swallowed as tablets and going through your gut. This means that your contraception is still effective even if you have an upset stomach - being sick (vomiting) or runny stools (diarrhoea).

Vaginal ring side-effects

  • Your partner may feel the ring during sex. It is recommended that the ring is not removed during sex, or regularly removed for any other reason, or it may become less effective.

  • You may be aware of the ring in your vagina. Occasionally, some people find this unpleasant.

  • The most common side-effects are headaches, a sore vagina and vaginal discharge. Each of these side-effects occurs in about 1 in 20 women.

  • Sometimes the ring falls out. Wash it under a tap with cold or lukewarm water and put it back in if it has been out for less than three hours. If it has been out for longer, see the section below about what to do.

  • Sometimes a ring may break whilst inside the vagina. This is rare. If this happens, you should remove the broken ring and insert a new one. Use extra contraception, such as condoms, for seven days.

Other more serious health risks are much rarer and happen as often as with the COC pill.

These serious but rare risks include:

  • Blood clots in the blood vessels, lungs, heart or brain. It seems this risk may be slightly higher if you use the contraceptive vaginal ring rather than the COC pill. However, the risk is extremely small and much smaller than the risks of blood clots associated with being pregnant. If you or your close relatives have any health conditions which make blood clots more likely, you would be advised by your doctor or nurse not to use the ring.

  • There may be a very small increased risk of breast cancer and cancer of the neck of the womb (cervix).

You can read more about risks of combined hormonal contraception (including the contraceptive patch as well as the ring and the combined pill). See the separate leaflet called The Combined Oral Contraceptive (COC) Pill.

What if I forget to change the ring?

If you forget to change your ring and it has been in place for:

  • Up to four weeks: take it out as soon as you remember. Have one week without it, then replace with a new ring as normal. Alternatively, the week without the ring can be skipped and a new ring inserted.

  • More than four weeks but less than five: remove it and put in a new ring straightaway, without a week's break. Condoms should be used, or sex avoided, until a new ring has been in place for seven consecutive days.

  • Five weeks or more: its contraceptive effect may have been reduced. You should check that you are not pregnant before putting in another one. If a pregnancy test is negative, put in a new ring but use additional contraception such as condoms for seven days. You may also need emergency contraception if unprotected sex has taken place during week five or later. A pregnancy test should be repeated three weeks after the first one was performed. If you are not sure, ask your pharmacist, family planning nurse or your doctor.

What if I forget to put the new ring in?

If you forget to insert a new ring after the seven-day break, you should put in a new ring as soon as you remember.

  • If this is 48 hours or less after you were meant to put a new one in, you won't need to use any additional contraception.

  • If it is more than 48 hours, you should also use additional contraception (such as a condom) for seven days. You might become pregnant if you have sex when you have forgotten to put a new ring in place, so talk with your pharmacist, doctor, nurse or family planning clinic if you think you might need emergency contraception.

What if the ring comes out?

If the ring comes out for less than three hours, wash it and put it back. It will still be effective.

If the ring has been out for more than three hours in the first week:

  • It may be less effective.

  • Wash the ring and put it back as soon as you can.

  • If it was out for more than 48 hours:

    • Use extra precautions such as condoms for seven days.

    • See your pharmacist, doctor or nurse if you have had sex without a condom in the previous week. You may also need emergency contraception.

If the ring has been out for more than three hours in the second or third week, throw the ring away and either:

  • Put in a new ring and start a new three-week cycle; or

  • Have a ring-free week and put in a new ring seven days after it came out. (Only take this option if the ring had been in place continuously for the previous seven days.)

  • If it was out for more than 48 hours, use extra precautions for seven days.

If in doubt speak with your pharmacist, doctor, nurse or family planning clinic. You should also seek medical attention if you think you may need emergency contraception as above.

How do I store my ring?

The contraceptive vaginal ring should be stored at room temperature (not above 30°C) and once you have been given your ring you should use it within four months. This is why you will only be given a maximum of four rings at one time.

Your ring is not biodegradable so, once you have finished with a ring, just put it in your normal household waste - do not flush it down the loo!

Who cannot use this method?

If you have been advised that you should not use the COC pill then you should also not use the contraceptive vaginal ring. In some cases this may be because you are at higher risk from blood clots (venous thromboembolism).

If any of the following apply to you, you should not use the contraceptive vaginal ring:

You would also be at higher risk and probably advised not to use the ring other than in exceptional circumstances if the following apply:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension) requiring medication to control it.

  • A family history of a venous thromboembolism in a first-degree relative (for example, sister, mother) who was aged under 45 years when it happened.

  • You have gallstones.

  • If you are on certain medications, particularly for epilepsy.

If you have a vaginal prolapse or constipation, you may find it difficult to keep the ring in place.

This is not a complete list of all the conditions which make it advisable to avoid use of the contraceptive vaginal ring. As long as your doctor or nurse is aware of your medical and family history, they will be able to advise if it is safe for you.

Who can advise me?

Your family planning clinic, local pharmacist, GP and GP practice nurse are all good sources of information if you have any queries.

Further reading and references

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

  • Next review due: 2 Dec 2028
  • 4 Dec 2023 | Latest version

    Last updated by

    Dr Surangi Mendis

    Peer reviewed by

    Dr Caroline Wiggins, MRCGP
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