Emergency Contraception Options

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 30, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Patricia Geraghty MSN, WHNP, FNP-BC on July 30, 2014

Emergency Contraception Options

Even if you have an established birth control plan, accidents happen. If you’ve had unprotected sex, or your birth control method failed, there are still options available. Emergency contraception (EC) can be used to prevent an unwanted pregnancy by delaying or preventing the release of an egg from a woman’s ovaries. It is not abortion.

Why Women Use Emergency Contraception

EC is no substitute for regular forms of birth control. However, it can be very useful for women who:

  • have been raped or coerced into having sex
  • have a partner who refused to use a condom
  • forgot to use their regular contraceptive, or used it incorrectly

had a contraceptive failure, such as a broken condom

The Emergency Contraceptive Pill

The emergency contraceptive pill is a safe and effective way to prevent pregnancy before it occurs. It can be taken up to five days after unprotected intercourse, but it is more effective the sooner it is used. Available brands include:

  • Plan B One-Step
  • Ella
  • Next Choice

These pills can be used to prevent pregnancy up to five days after an episode of unprotected sex. However, the sooner you take them, the more effective they are.

Many people believe that the emergency contraceptive pill causes an abortion, but this is absolutely not true. The emergency contraceptive pill prevents ovulation. When no egg is released, a woman cannot get pregnant.

In addition to branded emergency contraceptive pills, certain birth control pills can be used as EC. You can find more information on pills and dosages at the Emergency Contraception Website.

Taking the EC Pill

You can take the morning-after pill in either one or two doses, depending on the pill. It is important to read the instructions carefully before you take it.

EC is only effective after sex. If you have sex after taking the emergency contraceptive pill, you are not protected from pregnancy.

Effectiveness

According to Planned Parenthood, the emergency contraceptive pill is 89 percent effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. It becomes less effective after that. The sooner you take EC, the more effective it is.

In recent clinical trials, the pill was less effective in women with a BMI of 30 or greater than in non-obese women. However, there was evidence that emergency contraceptive pills that include ulipristal acetate (such as ella) were more effective in obese women.

If you have not gotten your period within three weeks of taking EC, you should take a pregnancy test.

Side Effects

The morning-after pill can have significant side effects. These include:

  • nausea
  • irregular bleeding
  • dizziness
  • headaches

You may also experience irregularities in your next menstrual cycle after taking EC. Your cycle may start earlier or later than it normally does, and you may have heavier bleeding than usual.

Ongoing and long-term birth control methods are safer and more effective. You can take anti-nausea medication before the emergency contraceptive pill if you are concerned about vomiting.

Where to Find the EC Pill

The emergency contraceptive pill is available for purchase at most drugstores and healthcare centers. You do not need a prescription if you are 17 years of age or older. If you have trouble getting emergency contraception from your pharmacy, contact your local Planned Parenthood for assistance.

Some people who are worried about contraceptive failure buy the emergency contraceptive pill in advance. If you do this, be sure that the pills have not expired before use.

ParaGard IUD

The ParaGard Intra-Uterine Device (IUD) can be used as emergency contraception. The device must be inserted into the uterus within five days after unprotected sex. It is more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Progestin IUDs are not recommended for emergency contraception.

Advantages

The major advantage of using ParaGard as EC is that you will continue to be protected from unwanted pregnancy. ParaGard is a highly effective form of contraception. It can be left in place for up to 10 years.

Disadvantages

Unlike the emergency contraceptive pill, a healthcare provider must insert an IUD. It may be difficult to get an appointment quickly enough. The up-front cost may also be high.

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