Emergency contraception is used after sex, rather than before, to prevent pregnancy. In the event that regular contraception fails, or if voluntary or involuntary unprotected sex, emergency contraception provides up to five days in which to potentially prevent pregnancy.
What are the different types of emergency contraception?
Most emergency contraception is hormonal. The simplest method of emergency contraception is to combine birth control pills containing the hormones progestin and estrogen in each of two doses, taken twelve hours apart. Only some versions of the pill are effective for this, and only at specific doses.
In the U.S., the drugs Plan B, its more recent one-pill version Plan B One-Step, and Next Choice are available to people age 17 and over without a prescription. These drugs provide a dose of levonorgestrel, a particular, pregnancy-preventing version of progestin. A drug called Ella contains ulipristal acetate, which acts on receptors for the hormone progesterone. It is available only by prescription. A non-hormonal emergency contraceptive is the Copper-T Intrauterine Device (IUD), which can be implanted within five days after sex, and can remain as a contraceptive for as long as 10 years. The pills, on the other hand, only prevent pregnancy at the time taken.
How does emergency contraception work?
The pill versions of emergency contraception work by either delaying or preventing ovulation, and perhaps by altering a woman's cervical mucus to create a hostile environment for sperm. A copper IUD prevents fertilization and also probably the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. Emergency contraception is therefore not an abortion, since it prevents, rather than ends, a pregnancy.
Who can use emergency contraception?
People of any age can acquire the prescription versions of emergency contraception; anyone age 17 and older can purchase the over-the-counter versions with identification for proof of age, but will need a prescription for these if under 17. In some states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington) pharmacists have the option to provide the non-prescription emergency contraception for underage patients.
Are there side effects?
There are few side effects of emergency contraception in pill form. The progestin/estrogen combination is the likeliest to cause some degree of nausea, dizziness, breast tenderness, headache, or fatigue. These typically do not last more than a day, and can be eased with medications like Dramamine for nausea. There may also be some menstrual effects, such as unexpected bleeding or an irregular next period. Intrauterine devices can cause cramping and heavy bleeding during a woman's period.