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There are three types of emergency contraception: two types of emergency contraceptive pill (so called 'morning after pill') and the emergency intrauterine device (IUD).

Emergency contraception is not a form of abortion.

Morning after pills

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Levonelle

Levonelle is licensed to be taken up to 72 hours (three days) after having unprotected sex.

You can buy it over the counter from many pharmacies, or get it free from GPs and a range of clinics and NHS services.

The sooner you take Levonelle after unprotected sex, the more effective it will be.

It's considered to be:

  • 95% effective if you take it within 24 hours (1 day) of unprotected sex
  • 85% effective if you take it within 25-48 hours (2 days)
  • 58% effective if you take it within 49-72 hours (3 days)

Women on antiretroviral treatment will need to take twice the normal dose of Levonelle.

ellaOne

ellaOne can be taken up to 120 hours (five days) after having unprotected sex, and it’s 98% effective.

You can buy it over the counter from many pharmacies, or get it free from GPs and a range of clinics and NHS services.

ellaOne is not suitable for women on HIV treatment because of interactions with HIV drugs.

Emergency IUD

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A copper IUD can be used as emergency contraception up to 120 hours (five days) after unprotected sex (sometimes even longer), as long as you’re certain that you’re not already pregnant.

An emergency IUD will prevent 99% of pregnancies.

It needs to be fitted by a specially trained nurse or doctor. They will need to ask some questions first to decide whether it’s safe to use this method of emergency contraception.

The IUD is suitable for women taking HIV treatment as it doesn’t contain any hormones.

Advantages of emergency contraception

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  • 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 for 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 is used.

Disadvantages of emergency contraception

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  • It’s not as effective as regular contraception. Taking it doesn’t guarantee that you won't get pregnant.
  • It doesn’t provide any protection against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
  • Taking the pill may cause some irregular bleeding or disrupt the periods, causing them to come earlier or later than expected. This is more likely to happen when it’s taken more than once.
  • The IUD needs to be inserted by a specially trained doctor or nurse and so is not easily accessible.
  • It can be painful when it's put in and there’s a small chance of developing an infection.

Where to get it

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Emergency contraceptive pills are available free from GPs, sexual health clinics, young person’s clinics, some genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics, NHS walk-in centres, NHS minor injuries units or hospital emergency departments. Some schools may also be able to provide it via the school nurse.

You can buy an emergency contraceptive pill from pharmacies if you are over 16. Prices have been reduced recently but it can still cost from £13.49 to £35 on the high street.

Pills can be bought online before you need them. It’s a good idea to get advice from a doctor or nurse about getting advance emergency contraception.

Some pharmacies will provide it free to young people under 19.

Things to bear in mind

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Taking the emergency contraceptive pill does not provide you with protection if you have any more unprotected sex afterwards.

It’s not something you should use in place of regular contraception because it’s not as effective in preventing pregnancy.