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 two types of emergency contraception; the emergency contraceptive pill and the emergency intrauterine device (IUD).
The pill is a tablet containing a large dose of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone which can help prevent pregnancy. There are two types of pills. Levonelle can be taken up to 72 hours (three days) and ellaOne can be taken up to 120 hours (five days) after having unprotected sex. You can also use the IUD up to 120 hours (five days) later
How does it work?
The emergency contraceptive pill can work in three different ways to prevent a pregnancy from taking place; it can prevent an egg from being released, it can prevent an egg from being fertilised, or 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, but it is not, as an abortion involves removing a foetus from the womb. If a foetus has already implanted in the womb, it will not be aborted emergency contraception works by preventing a foetus from being able to implant in the first place.
The IUD works by creating an environment that is unfriendly, meaning that any fertilised egg will not be able to implant or grow into a foetus.
How effective is it?
How effective the emergency contraceptive pill is depends on when it is taken, and the sooner it’s taken the better it works.
The most common and easily accessible pill is Levonelle. If it is taken within 24 hours it is 95 per cent effective; within 25-48 hours it is 85 per cent effective; and within 49-72 hours it is 58 per cent effective.
ellaOne is 98 per cent effective any time up to 120 hours after unprotected sex.
The emergency IUD will prevent 99 per cent of pregnancies
What are the advantages?
The emergency contraceptive pill is easy to take, can be taken by most women and is quite easy to get hold of as it can be prescribed free by any doctor. It does not have any long-term side effects and is very safe.
The emergency IUD can be left in place as a permanent method of contraception for three to ten years, depending on what kind you have.
What are the downsides?
It is not as effective as regular contraception and taking it does not guarantee that you will not get pregnant. It also 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, 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 about the possibilities at the time.
Where can you get it?
The emergency contraceptive pill is available free from GPs, family planning clinics, young person’s clinics, GUM clinics or A&E. Some schools may also be able to provide it via the school nurse. In addition 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 also is not something you should use in place of regular contraception because it is not as effective in preventing pregnancy.