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Emergency contraception

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Emergency contraception is given to those who have had unprotected sex, are not taking regular contraception, and want to avoid pregnancy. It’s commonly known as the morning-after pill, but this isn’t accurate, as it's available for up to 5 days after any unprotected sex. But the sooner it’s taken, the more effectively it prevents pregnancy.

It’s important to emphasize that this is not an abortion or the termination of an embryo or fetus. The pill delays the release of a woman's egg, and the coil creates a hostile environment for sperm to fuse with a woman’s egg. It prevents a pregnancy rather than ending pregnancy.

Your local sexual health clinic is best for all types of emergency contraception, but tablets are available on prescription from your doctor, the emergency department, and some pharmacies.

How effective is it?

No method of contraception or emergency contraception is 100% effective, but it’s pretty good. The most effective, the coil which is an intrauterine device (IUD), has a 99% effectiveness rate, meaning less than 1% of women will become pregnant.

Effectiveness declines the longer it is since you had unprotected sex, and the hours count, so it’s important to prioritize getting it as soon as possible.

It may be less effective if you are just past ovulation (typically day 14, if we count day 1 as your first day of bleeding). Effectiveness is reduced if you’ve had unprotected sex previously in your cycle and if you’ve already taken emergency contraception that month.

You should take a pregnancy test three weeks after unprotected sex to check.

It’s important to remember that contraceptive pills and coils, and those used in emergency contraception, do not protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so it’s a good idea to get yourself tested. If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, contact your nearest sexual health clinic as soon as possible, and they will test and may consider giving you PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis, to minimize the chance of HIV settling in your body.

Are there any risks or long-term effects?

Intrauterine device (IUD) insertion can be an uncomfortable procedure, and painkillers can help. If you choose to keep it in, it can change the nature of your periods, becoming heavier or more painful for some women.

Pills can sometimes cause stomach pains, feeling sick or vomiting, and a headache, but no serious side effects.

Your periods will likely be disrupted for the following months – either earlier, later, lighter, heavier, or more painful. This may take up to 3 months to settle down.

If you become pregnant and have had the coil inserted or taken an emergency contraception tablet, while very rare, this is not known to harm the growing fetus. You have the same choices of continuing or terminating the pregnancy, as usual, according to US law.

Can I start hormonal contraception when I get emergency contraception?

It might be a good opportunity to start regular and reliable contraception in the same appointment as getting emergency contraception. You have the same choices of hormonal contraception available as usual, and your clinician will assess which is right for you based on a number of personal risk factors.

Emergency contraception can interfere with hormonal contraception. Either you can start within the first 5 days of your next period, or you can “quick-start.” Depending on which emergency contraception you have been given, this will either be immediately or 5 days later. It sounds complicated, but don’t worry, your clinician will know what they’re doing.

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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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