What is emergency contraception?
Emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or if your contraceptive method has failed – for example, a condom has split or you’ve missed a pill.
There are two types:
- the emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes called the morning after pill)
- the IUD (intrauterine device, or coil)
At a glance: emergency contraception
The emergency pill
The IUD as emergency contraception
Where to get emergency contraception
Contraception for the future
There are two kinds of the emergency contraceptive pill. Levonelle has to be taken within 72 hours (three days) of sex, and ellaOne has to be taken within 120 hours (five days) of sex. Both pills work by preventing or delaying ovulation (release of an egg). Emergency contraception is best taken as soon as possible to be effective.
The IUD can be inserted into your uterus up to five days after unprotected sex, or up to five days after the earliest time you could have ovulated. It may stop an egg from being fertilised or implanting in your womb.
Emergency contraception does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
At a glance: facts about emergency contraception
- Both types of emergency contraception are effective at preventing pregnancy if they are used soon after unprotected sex. Less than 1% of women who use the IUD get pregnant, whereas pregnancies after the emergency contraceptive pill are not as rare. It’s thought that ellaOne is more effective than Levonelle.
- The sooner you take Levonelle or ellaOne, the more effective it will be.
- Levonelle or ellaOne can make you feel sick, dizzy or tired, or give you a headache, tender breasts or abdominal pain.
- Levonelle or ellaOne can make your period earlier or later than usual.
- If you’re sick (vomit) within two hours of taking Levonelle, or three hours of taking ellaOne, seek medical advice as you will need to take another dose or have an IUD fitted.
- If you use the IUD as emergency contraception, it can be left in as your regular contraceptive method.
- If you use the IUD as a regular method of contraception, it can make your periods longer, heavier or more painful.
- You may feel some discomfort when the IUD is put in – painkillers can help to relieve this.
- There are no serious side effects of using emergency contraception.
- Emergency contraception does not cause an abortion.
The emergency pill
Levonelle contains levonorgestrel, a synthetic version of the natural hormone progesterone. In a woman’s body, progesterone plays a role in ovulation and preparing the uterus for accepting a fertilised egg.
It’s not known exactly how Levonelle works, but it’s thought to work primarily by preventing or delaying ovulation. It does not interfere with your regular method of contraception.
ellaOne contains ulipristal acetate, which stops progesterone working normally. It prevents pregnancy mainly by preventing or delaying ovulation.`
Levonelle and ellaOne do not continue to protect you against pregnancy. This means that if you have unprotected sex at any time after taking the emergency pill you can become pregnant.
Even if you are starting or continuing another method of hormonal contraception, it may not be effective immediately. You will need to use condoms or avoid sex until the contraception is working effectively.
The time it takes for contraception to become effective depends on the emergency contraceptive pill and the method of hormonal contraception being started. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when you can start hormonal contraception and how long you will need to take additional precautions to prevent an unintended pregnancy.
Levonelle and ellaOne are not intended to be used as a regular form of contraception. However, you can use emergency contraception more than once in a menstrual cycle if necessary.
How effective is the emergency pill at preventing pregnancy?
You can get contraception at:
- most GP surgeries
- community contraception clinics
- some GUM clinics
- sexual health clinics
- some young people’s services
- some pharmacies
It can be difficult to know how many pregnancies the emergency pill prevents because there is no way to know for sure how many women would have got pregnant if they did not take it.
A study published in 2010 showed that of 1,696 women who received the emergency pill within 72 hours of sex, 37 became pregnant (1,659 did not). Of 203 women who took the emergency pill between 72 and 120 hours after unprotected sex, there were three pregnancies.
Find out more about the research on the effectiveness of both emergency contraception pills.
However, it’s important to remember that the sooner you take emergency contraception after sex, the more effective it will be.
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