An Intrauterine Device (IUD) is a small device made from plastic and copper. Previously known as 'the coil', it can be placed quite easily into the uterus (womb) by a trained doctor or nurse. Although highly effective, problems can arise.
The IUD works mainly by stopping the egg and sperm from meeting. It may also prevent the fertilised egg from attaching to the lining of the uterus. The copper also has a spermicidal effect.
Modern IUDs can be over 99% effective, meaning that no more than 1 woman per 100 will become pregnant each year using this method of contraception.
Advantages of the IUD include:
- Once an IUD is inserted you can forget about contraception
- It does not interfere with sex
- It is not a hormonal method so it has no side-effects on the rest of the body
- Most women can have an IUD if they wish.
Most women with an IUD have no problems, but the following occasionally occur:
Fitting or Removing an IUD
- Heavier periods. Some women find that their periods become heavier, longer, or more painful. This tends to be in the first few months after insertion, and then often settles. The IUD may not be suitable if you already have heavy or painful periods. However, painful and heavy periods can still be treated in the same way as in women who don't have an IUD. For example, by taking anti-inflammatory painkillers or other medicines during periods. Also, there is a special IUD called the intrauterine system (IUS). This device is like an IUD, but it also releases a progestogen hormone into the uterus. This is an effective treatment for heavy periods as well as a contraceptive.
- Infection. There is a small risk of an infection of the uterus (pelvic infection). The main risk is within the first 20 days after insertion, so a check for infection of the vagina or cervix may be advised before an IUD is inserted. An IUD is not advisable if you have previously had a pelvic infection.
The risk of a pelvic infection from a sexually-transmitted infection is also greater in women with a IUD, so women who are at greater risk for getting a sexually-transmitted infection (for example, having more than one sexual partner) may wish to avoid IUDs.
- Ectopic pregnancy. The chance of becoming pregnant is very small if you use an IUD. However, if you do become pregnant, there is a higher than normal chance that the pregnancy will be ectopic. See a doctor urgently if you miss a period and develop lower abdominal pain. An IUD is not advisable if you have previously had an ectopic pregnancy.
- Expulsion. Rarely, the IUD may come out without you noticing.
- Internal damage. The process of fitting of an IUD can (rarely) cause damage to the uterus.
An IUD is usually fitted towards the end of a period or shortly after. However, it can be fitted at any time provided that you are certain you are not pregnant. You will need to have a vaginal examination; the doctor or nurse will pass a small instrument into your uterus to check its size and position. An IUD is then fitted. You will be taught how to feel the threads of the IUD so you can check it is in place. It is best to check the threads regularly, for example, once a month just after a period.
Fitting an IUD can sometimes be uncomfortable. Once the IUD has been inserted some women have crampy pains like period pains for a few hours afterwards. These can be eased by painkillers such as paracetamol. Light vaginal bleeding may also occur for a short while.
The doctor or nurse will usually want to check that there are no problems a few weeks after fitting an IUD. After this, an annual check is typical. Most women have no problems, and the IUD can remain in place for several years.
An IUD can be removed at any time by a trained doctor or nurse. If you plan to have it removed, but do not want to get pregnant, then use other methods of contraception (such as condoms) for 7 days before it is removed. This is because sperm can last up to 7 days in the uterus and can fertilise an egg after the IUD is removed.
You can use sanitary towels or tampons for periods with an IUD in place.
Seek medical attention if...
Consult a doctor if any of the following occur:
- Prolonged abdominal pain after an IUD is inserted
- A delayed period, or bleeding between periods
- A delayed period and lower abdominal pain (this may be due to an ectopic pregnancy)
- Vaginal discharge with or without pain (this may indicate infection)
- You suspect that the IUD has come out or is coming out. If you cannot feel the threads then use other contraceptive methods (such as condoms) until you have been checked by a doctor or nurse.