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Unprotected Sex

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 minutes read

Unprotected sex, often referred to as intercourse without adequate contraception, can lead to unintended consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This article delves into the potential risks of unprotected sex, explores emergency contraception options like levonorgestrel, EllaOne, and the copper IUD, and highlights the importance of informed decision-making for sexual health.

Understanding Unprotected Sex

Unprotected sex encompasses any sexual activity without the use of effective contraception. This places individuals at risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs, which can have lasting implications for their health and well-being. Unprotected intercourse involves sexual activities where no barrier or hormonal method is utilized to prevent the exchange of bodily fluids that can lead to pregnancy or the transmission of STIs. This includes vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse. While some people may associate unprotected sex solely with vaginal intercourse, it's important to recognize that unprotected activities in any form can carry risks.

Barrier Methods:

Barrier methods are contraceptive techniques that create a physical barrier between partners' genital areas and bodily fluids, thus preventing the exchange of sperm, eggs, and infectious agents. They can be used during vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse. Here are some examples:

  1. Condoms: Condoms are one of the most widely used barrier methods. They come in male and female versions. Male condoms are worn over the erect penis to collect semen, while female condoms are inserted into the vagina before intercourse.

  2. Dental Dams: Dental dams are thin latex or polyurethane sheets that can be used during oral-vaginal or oral-anal sex to create a barrier between the mouth and the genital area.

  3. Cervical Caps and Diaphragms: These are small, flexible devices that are inserted into the vagina to cover the cervix. They create a barrier to prevent sperm from reaching the uterus.

Hormonal Methods:

Hormonal contraception involves the use of synthetic hormones to prevent pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation, thickening cervical mucus, and altering the uterine lining. Here are some examples:

  1. Contraceptive Pills: Oral contraceptive pills, commonly known as birth control pills, contain hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that prevent ovulation and make it difficult for sperm to reach the egg. These pills are taken daily.

  2. Contraceptive Patch: The contraceptive patch is a small adhesive patch that is applied to the skin. It releases hormones similar to those in birth control pills and is changed weekly.

  3. Contraceptive Ring: The contraceptive vaginal ring is a flexible ring that is inserted into the vagina and releases hormones over a three-week period. It is then removed for a week to allow for menstruation.

  4. Hormonal Injections: Hormonal injections, such as Depo-Provera, are given every few months to prevent ovulation and pregnancy.

  5. Hormonal IUD: Intrauterine devices (IUDs) release progestin hormone directly into the uterus. They prevent fertilization by thickening cervical mucus and altering the uterine lining.

  6. Implant: The contraceptive implant is a small rod inserted under the skin of the arm. It releases progestin to prevent ovulation and lasts for several years.

Emergency Contraception: Levonorgestrel, EllaOne & Copper IUD

Levonorgestrel (Morning-After Pill):

Levonorgestrel, often known as the morning-after pill, functions by delaying ovulation to prevent fertilization. It is most effective when taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. Levonorgestrel can be obtained without a prescription and is a widely accessible form of emergency contraception.

Despite its convenience, levonorgestrel may entail side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and alterations in menstrual patterns. It's important to note that while levonorgestrel can prevent pregnancy, it should not be relied upon as a routine contraceptive method.

EllaOne (ulipristal acetate):

EllaOne is another emergency contraception option that inhibits ovulation and prevents fertilization. It offers a slightly extended window of effectiveness, being suitable for use within 120 hours post-unprotected intercourse. Unlike levonorgestrel, EllaOne requires a prescription, and consultation with a healthcare professional is advised before usage.

Potential side effects of EllaOne include headaches, abdominal discomfort, and shifts in menstrual cycles. As with any medication, understanding its potential interactions and effects is crucial before use.

Copper Intrauterine Device (IUD):

The copper IUD is a long-term contraceptive option that can also serve as emergency contraception. By impeding sperm movement and fertilization, the copper IUD can be inserted within 120 hours after unprotected intercourse. Apart from its emergency use, it offers ongoing protection against unintended pregnancies.

The benefits of the copper IUD include its high efficacy rate of over 99% and its sustained contraceptive protection. Nevertheless, its insertion necessitates a healthcare professional and may cause discomfort or mild cramping.

Prevention and Regular Contraception

While emergency contraception addresses instances of unprotected sex, it is no substitute for regular contraception. Condoms, hormonal methods, and long-term options offer continuous protection against unintended pregnancies and STIs. Consulting healthcare professionals helps tailor contraceptive choices to individual needs.

Scenarios Explained


Pre-ejaculate, a clear fluid released before ejaculation, can contain viable sperm, increasing the risk of pregnancy if it contacts the vaginal area. Relying on withdrawal (pulling out) as a form of contraception is unreliable due to the presence of pre-ejaculate. Additionally, pre-ejaculate can transmit STIs.

Ejaculating Outside:

While ejaculating outside the vagina might seem like a safe option, it doesn't guarantee protection against pregnancy. Sperm can still find its way to the vaginal area through close contact. For effective prevention, consistent contraception is paramount.

Condom Failure:

Condoms, though effective when used correctly, can occasionally fail due to breakage or slippage. In case of condom failure during intercourse, considering emergency contraception is advisable.

Wearing clothes:

It is unlikely to become pregnant while wearing pants. Pregnancy occurs when sperm from a male partner fertilizes an egg from a female partner. For fertilization to occur, sperm typically need direct access to the vaginal area and cervix. To add to this, it would need to occur around the ovulation period. Wearing pants or any clothing provides a barrier that prevents sperm from reaching the necessary areas. Clothing alone does not completely protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

When to Seek Medical Assistance

Medical attention is recommended:

  • When there is concern about potential pregnancy post-unprotected sex.
  • If exposure to STIs is a possibility.
  • For guidance on emergency contraception suitability.
  • For consistent contraceptive options to prevent repeated instances of unprotected sex.

Support from the pharmacy:

Pharmacies play a crucial role in providing access to emergency contraception. Both levonorgestrel and EllaOne can be acquired from pharmacies, where pharmacists offer insights into their proper usage, side effects, and potential interactions. Pharmacies provide a confidential environment for addressing sexual health concerns. If you would like to chat with one of our pharmacists, you can chat now with our pharmacist live chat.


Unprotected sex carries substantial risks, including unintended pregnancy and STI transmission. Emergency contraception methods such as levonorgestrel, EllaOne, and the copper IUD offer a safety net after unprotected intercourse. Fostering responsible sexual health practices, embracing regular contraceptive strategies, and maintaining an open dialogue with healthcare professionals contribute to a healthier approach to sexual activity. Seeking timely medical advice and adopting effective contraception practices empower individuals to manage their sexual health proactively.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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