Emergency contraception can be used by a woman if she has not used any other contraception when having sex, or if the contraception she did use failed for some reason, and she does not want to get pregnant.
There are three types of emergency contraception: two types of emergency contraceptive pill (so called 'morning after pill') and the emergency intrauterine device (IUD).
It's a tablet containing a large dose of progestogen which can help prevent pregnancy, by preventing the release of an egg (ovulation) if taken soon enough in your cycle.
Levonelle is licensed to be taken up to 72 hours (3 days) after having unprotected sex and can be obtained over the counter from many pharmacies, sometimes free of charge.
However if you go to your local sexual health clinic or your GP, they will be able to prescribe Levonelle for you at any time after unprotected sex and for free.
A tablet containing ullipristal, EllaOne is a drug which interferes with how the hormone progestogen works in the body, stopping your body from releasing an egg and reducing the thickness of the womb lining.
EllaOne can be taken up to 120 hours (5 days) after having unprotected sex.
It cannot be obtained from a high street pharmacy as it needs to be prescribed. It can only be obtained from your local sexual health clinic, your GP or walk in centre, who will be able to prescribe EllaOne for free.
3. Emergency IUD
An emergency copper IUD can be used as emergency contraception IUD up to 120 hours (5 days) after unprotected sex (sometimes even longer), as long as you are certain that you are not already pregnant.
A specially trained nurse or doctor needs to ask some questions first to decide whether it is safe for you to use this method of emergency contraception - so you will need to call your nearest sexual health clinic or GP as soon as possible for advice.
How does it work?
Emergency contraceptive pills can work in a number of different ways, including:
- preventing an egg from being released
- preventing an egg from being fertilised
- if an egg has been fertilised, it can prevent it from implanting in the womb and developing into a foetus.
Some people worry that emergency contraception is a form of abortion - it is not, because an abortion involves removing a foetus from the womb. If a foetus has already implanted in the womb, it will not be aborted by taking emergency contraceptive pills, which work by preventing the fertilized egg from being able to implant in the first place and so don't enable it to become a foetus.
The IUD works by releasing copper chemicals called ions, creating an environment that is hostile to sperm. This means that no fertilised egg will be able to implant or grow into a foetus.
How effective is it?
This depends on when it is taken. The sooner it’s taken, the better it works.
If Levonelle is taken within 24 hours of unprotected sex it is 95% effective; if taken within 25-48 hours it is 85% effective; within 49-72 hours, it is 58% effective.
EllaOne is 98% effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex.
The emergency IUD will prevent 99% of pregnancies.
Advantages of emergency contraception:
The emergency contraceptive pill is easy to take, can be taken by most women and is quite easy to get hold of because it can be prescribed free by any doctor and many nurses.
It does not have any long-term side effects and is very safe.
There are no known effects on babies born to women who have taken emergency contraception which failed, and who have then gone ahead with the pregnancy.
The emergency IUD can be left in place as a permanent method of contraception for 5 to 10 years, depending on what kind of coil you have been fitted with.
Disadvantages of emergency contraception:
It is not as effective as regular contraception. Taking it does not guarantee that you will not get pregnant.
It does not provide you with any protection against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Taking the pill may cause some irregular bleeding or disrupt your periods, causing them to come earlier or later than expected. This is more likely to happen if you have taken it more than once.
The IUD needs to be inserted by specially trained doctor or nurse, and because of that is not as easily accessible.
It can be painful upon insertion and there’s a small chance of infection developing, but you can talk to your doctor, nurse or sexual health clinic about the possibilities at the time.
Where can you get it?
The emergency contraceptive pill is available free from GPs, sexual health clinics, young person’s clinics, GUM clinics or A&E. Some schools may also be able to provide it via the school nurse.
It is available to buy at pharmacies if you are aged 16 or older - but this can be expensive, as most charge around £26. Some pharmacies will provide it free to young people under 19.
It is important to remember that if you need the emergency contraceptive pill it is you that has to see the doctor or pharmacist. Nobody else can get it for you.
Things to bear in mind:
Taking the emergency contraceptive pill does not provide you with protection if you have any more unprotected sex after you have taken it.
It is not something you should use in place of regular contraception because it is not as effective in preventing pregnancy.