Emergency Contraception

When would I need to use emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy after you've had sex without birth control or after your birth control method has failed -- say, the condom broke or slipped off, your diaphragm got knocked out of place, or you forgot to take your birth control pills. Depending on where you are in your cycle, your chances of becoming pregnant from one episode of intercourse can be as high as 30 percent. Using emergency contraception can greatly reduce your risk of pregnancy.

How do I get emergency contraception?

In the United States, Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One-Dose, Take Action, My Way, After Pill, and others are among the morning-after pills that contain levonorgestrel. These pills should be taken as soon as possible (and up to three days) after having unprotected sex. If you are a woman aged 17 or older, you can obtain the pills directly from a pharmacist in all 50 states; in other words, you can buy them over the counter without a prescription. If you are under 17, contact your pharmacist for further information on availability. (For women under 17, the pills are available from a pharmacist in some states or through a prescription from a doctor; your pharmacist can help you figure out your available options.)

If it's been more than three days (but less than six days) since you had unprotected sex, you may still be able to avoid pregnancy by taking ella, a morning-after pill that contains ulipristal acetate. This pills works just as well on day five as on day one.

You may also be able to guard against pregnancy by having a ParaGuard intrauterine device (IUD) inserted. When the insertion is done in time, an IUD is better than 99 percent effective.

It's important to know the morning-after pills are not "abortion pills." If you are already pregnant, the pills will not affect the pregnancy.

What are the side effects of "morning after" pills?

Side effects include nausea, headache, dizziness, and menstrual changes. Taking an over-the-counter anti-nausea medication an hour before the first dose of pills can reduce the risk of nausea. See your doctor immediately if you have severe leg or abdominal pain, chest pain or shortness of breath, severe headaches or dizziness, loss of vision or trouble speaking, or jaundice. These can indicate a range of rare but serious complications, from blood clots to liver damage.

How soon will I get my period?

You should have a normal period within the month after taking the pills. If you don't get a period within 28 days or your period is more than a week late, call your doctor -- you may be pregnant. This could be a medical emergency if the egg is implanted in your Fallopian tubes or abdomen.

If I'm already pregnant, will the pills cause an abortion?

No. If you're already pregnant, the pills won't work. There's no evidence that taking birth control pills will harm a fetus at all, but it's not a good idea to risk exposing an unborn child to hormones unless you plan to have an abortion.

Can any woman use emergency contraception?

You may not be a good candidate for the pills if you've ever had breast cancer, any reproductive cancer, a stroke, blood clots in your legs or lungs, diabetes, liver or kidney disease, severe migraines, or high blood pressure. The IUD may not be a good choice for you if you're at risk of sexually transmitted disease because you or your partner has had multiple sexual partners. In such a case, IUD insertion ups your chances of developing pelvic infections, which can lead to infertility if left untreated.

Further Resources

You can get more information -- including the exact doses recommended for each brand of pill, as well as a directory of physicians in your area who are willing to prescribe them -- on the Emergency Contraception Website, which is operated by the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.

References

American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pamphlet. Emergency Contraception. AP 114. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 409 12th Street, SW, P.O. Box 96920, Washington, DC 20090-6920.

Planned Parenthood. Emergency Contraception. (Morning After Pill). https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/morning-after-pill-emergency-contraception

Princeton University. The Emergency Contraception Web Site. http://ec.princeton.edu

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