What is a copper coil?

A copper coil is an IUD - intrauterine device - which is inserted into the womb, where it remains active for between five and ten years. It is most commonly known as the coil, because it was coil-shaped in the 1960s. A more modern name is 'the copper T', simply because it's T-shaped and contains copper.

It's different to an IUS because it releases copper instead of hormones to prevent pregnancy.

The coil can be used as an emergency contraceptive to prevent pregnancy up to five days after contraception is thought to have failed. However, it's much more difficult for women to find the appropriate source of the coil than the morning after pill, so it's not commonly used in this way.

How do you use it?

Women who choose the coil must have it fitted by a doctor or nurse, which will take between 15 and 20 minutes. You'll need to have an internal exam first, to determine whether the copper coil can be fitted safely. You might have to take an STI test, so that any existing infections can be treated. That's because women who use the coil aren't protected from spreading or contracting STIs unless they use a barrier contraceptive, such as a condom.

The coil will fold up so it can fit inside a medical instrument that looks like a drinking straw. This straw is pushed into the vagina, through the cervix and into the womb. The copper coil is then ejected from the straw and left in place. Women tend to find this a painful process, but many describe it as less unpleasant than a trip to the dentist.

You'll need to rest for half an hour or so in the surgery, and shouldn't drive home in case you feel faint. You might have to take a painkiller because you'll probably experience cramps for a few hours after. It's also likely that you'll lose some blood over the next few days, so you should be prepared for that.

What are the benefits?

Women who have the coil fitted can expect to enjoy the following benefits:

  • Immediately effective
  • Long-lasting, reliable contraceptive cover
  • Normal return to fertility once removed
  • Don't need to take action every day to prevent pregnancy
  • Doesn't stop periods, which many women find reassuring
  • Reduced risk of side effects because it doesn't use hormones
  • Less affected by medication or illness than other oral contraceptives

What are the side effects?

The side effects experienced by women who use the coil are minimal, because it doesn't use hormones to prevent pregnancy. Women usually find that their periods will become heavier, longer and more painful, but that should settle after a few months. This is the only side effect women who use the coil might experience, which makes it so appealing.

Who can and cannot take it?

Most women can use the copper coil, but not all. You won't be able to use the coil if you have a structural abnormality of the womb or cervix; if you have a pelvic infection or STI; if you have unexplained vaginal bleeding; if you have heart valve problems; if you have an allergy to copper; if you've had an ectopic pregnancy previously; or if you think you might be pregnant.

Generally, women who experience heavy periods shouldn't use the coil contraception, because the increased menstrual flow could cause anaemia.

What did it do for me?

My partner and I decided that we didn't want any more children, at least in the foreseeable future, so we looked into long-acting reversible contraception. When I heard that the coil released copper, making it a hormone-free contraceptive option, I decided to choose the coil and see how my body responded. It was brilliant. I didn't experience any side effects, although my periods did become heavier. Three years after having the coil fitted, my partner and I decided to try for another child. The coil was removed and we conceived our daughter a couple of months later.

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