Emergency Contraception

Young women's version of this guide
taking medicine

Even though guys can’t get pregnant, it’s important for everyone to know about emergency contraception.

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception (EC) is a backup method of birth control that a woman can use to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. Even though you may have heard EC called the “morning-after pill”, there is both a pill and an intrauterine device that can actually be used within 5 days (120 hours) of unprotected intercourse for emergency contraception. EC works better the sooner a woman takes it.

Names of EC you should be familiar with:

  1. Levonorgestrel (1.5mg pills) Plan B One-Step™, Next Choice One Dose®, My Way®, AfterPill™ . These are available over-the-counter without a prescription. The directions says to use it within 3 days (72 hours) although it has some effect in preventing pregnancy to 5 days after unprotected intercourse. EC is most effective the earlier it is taken. This method is less effective on day 5 than day 1.
  2. Ulipristal acetate (30mg) includes Ella™ (urlipristal acetate or UPA). This is one pill (one dose) that can be taken up to 5 days (120 hours) after unprotected intercourse. A prescription is often needed for this pill, but in some states a pharmacist can dispense Ella™ without a prescription. In all states, you can call your PCP to get a prescription called in or you may want to ask your PCP for a prescription in case you need it in the future. Some practices may recommend you get a pregnancy test before you take it. Ella™ can also be purchased online after a telephone consultation; however, it is likely to be more expensive and you may need to factor in overnight shipping. Please be aware that online pharmacies cannot mail Ella™ to certain states including: Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and Oregon.
  3. Copper Intrauterine Device: Copper T IUD ParaGard®: This is a copper intrauterine device (IUD) that can be inserted into a woman’s uterus within 5 days of unprotected intercourse for emergency contraception and then provides contraception for up to 10 years. It is the most effective option. All women need to see a health care provider for placement of the IUD.
  4. Other Oral Contraceptive Pills: Some oral contraceptive pills may be prescribed in two high doses (12 hours apart) by a health care provider. This type of EC must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. However, this form of EC is the least effective, and cause a women to experience nausea and vomiting.

When should a woman use emergency contraception?

Your partner should use EC if:

  • You had unprotected sex, which means that you didn’t use a condom and your partner wasn’t using a hormonal method of birth control or an IUD.
  • Your partner forgot to take her birth control pills, patch or vaginal ring (and you’ve been having sex).
  • Your condom broke or slipped off while you were having sex.

How does emergency contraception work?

The medication in EC pills works by giving a strong short burst of hormones that change a woman’s menstrual cycle and prevent ovulation. Ovulation is the time in a woman’s menstrual cycle that she is most likely to become pregnant. It’s important to remember that EC doesn’t continue to protect against pregnancy during the rest of the menstrual cycle. The copper IUD works by preventing fertilization and if left in the woman’s uterus, it will continue to protect against pregnancy for 10 years or until removed by a health care provider.

It’s important to remember that EC doesn’t continue to protect against pregnancy during the rest of a woman’s menstrual cycle. It is very important to not have sex or use a barrier method (condoms) for at least 7 days.

Does EC cause an abortion?

No. EC will NOT cause an abortion because it doesn’t work if a woman is already pregnant. EC will NOT cause an abortion.

How well does EC work?

It’s important to remember that emergency contraception doesn’t always work. It doesn’t guarantee that pregnancy will be prevented. The risk of pregnancy depends on the type of EC used, when in your partner’s menstrual cycle you had sex, and what kind of birth control she uses. Your partner is more likely to get pregnant around the time when the ovary releases an egg (ovulation). Oral hormones used for emergency contraception lowers the risk of pregnancy by 89%. The pregnancy rate is less than 2% after ulipristal acetate use, 2-2.5% with levonorgestrel method (Plan B), and 0-2% after copper IUD insertion.

The best way to prevent pregnancy is to use a long acting birth control method, such as an IUD or implantable rod, or another birth control method such as the Depo-Provera shot, birth control pills, ring, or patch, or to not have sexual intercourse (abstinence).

Is EC safe?

Yes. Millions of women have used emergency contraception successfully. Even women who can’t use hormonal birth control because of medical problem (migraines, heart disease, liver disease, and breastfeeding) can take EC.

Are there any side-effects with taking Emergency Contraception (EC)?

EC is tolerated well and side effects are usually absent or mild. The most common side effects of EC include nausea and irregular menstrual bleeding. Other less common side effects may include: vomiting, breast tenderness, fatigue, dizziness, headache, and menstrual cramps, but these side effects most often go away after 1-2 days.

If your partner throws up within 3 hours after taking any oral EC, she should call her health care provider (HCP) as she will likely need to take another dose along with something to prevent vomiting.

How can my partner get emergency contraception?

In the United States, women at any age can get Plan B One-Step™ and other brands of LNG at most pharmacies without a prescription. Men can also purchase LNG EC. Women can also get Ella ™ (Ulipristal acetate) at a pharmacy, but they will need a prescription. You may need to check many different pharmacies, because EC is not available in all pharmacies. For a copper IUD, your partner will need to be seen at a clinic, such as her primary care provider or gynecologist’s office, or Planned Parenthood, to have the IUD placed in her uterus.

Use the EC website to find a health care provider or pharmacy if you or your partner has any questions about emergency contraception.

Is it ok for my partner to use EC as her regular form of birth control?

No. Emergency contraception is not meant to be a regular method of birth control. It is meant to be a one-time emergency treatment. Emergency contraception can be used when a condom breaks, when a diaphragm or cervical cap gets moved, or any time when there is unprotected sex. You and your partner should not use emergency contraception as her only protection against pregnancy, because this method doesn’t work as well as other types of birth control. Also, you should always use a barrier method (condom) because EC will not protect against sexually transmitted infections.

Key Points to Remember about Emergency Contraception (EC):

  • Emergency contraception is a safe treatment to help prevent pregnancy in adolescent girls and adult women who have had unprotected sex.
  • EC will NOT cause an abortion. Plan B One-Step® does not work after ovulation.
  • EC does NOT prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or HIV
  • Emergency contraception does not guarantee that pregnancy is prevented. The best way to prevent pregnancy is to use a regular birth control method, such as birth control pills, long acting reversible contraception (IUD’s, injection, implants), condoms, or to abstain or not have sexual intercourse.
  • Many EC products are available to all women in the United States without a prescription including: Plan B One-Step®, Next Choice One Dose®, MyWay®, AfterPill™,and other single dose 1.5mg Levonorgestrel products. Ella™ (Ulipristal acetate or UPA) is available with a prescription.
  • ParaGard® (IUD) is available at some health centers and clinics and must be inserted by a health care provider.
  • Your partner should have a pregnancy test if she does NOT get her period within 3 weeks after taking EC.
  • Abdominal pain and/or heavy or unusual menstrual bleeding after taking EC is not normal and should be reported to your partner’s health care provider right away.

After your partner takes EC, a backup method of birth control (condoms) should be used for at least 7 days or you should not have sex during this time. If your partner is using birth control pills and she used LNG she can resume birth control pills right away. If she used Ella, she should not start or resume taking birth control pills for 5 days and should use condoms. Condoms should be used every time you have sexual intercourse to prevent STIs.