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
Levonelle is licensed to be taken up to 72 hours (three days) after having unprotected sex.
It can be obtained over the counter from many pharmacies, sometimes free of charge.
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.
Women on antiretroviral treatment will need to take twice the normal dose of Levonelle.
EllaOne can be taken up to 120 hours (five days) after having unprotected sex, and it’s 98% effective.
It cannot be obtained from a high street pharmacy as it needs to be prescribed. It can only be obtained from a sexual health clinic, a GP or walk-in centre, who will be able to prescribe it for free.
EllaOne is not suitable for women on HIV treatment because of interactions with HIV drugs.
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.
A specially trained nurse or doctor needs 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
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
It’s not as effective as regular contraception. Taking it doesn’t guarantee that a pregnancy will be prevented.
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 therefore is not easily accessible.
It can be painful upon insertion and there’s a small chance of developing an infection.
Where to get it
The emergency contraceptive pill is available free from GPs, sexual health clinics, young person’s clinics, GUM clinics and A&E. Some schools may also be able to provide it via the school nurse.
It’s available to buy at pharmacies for anyone 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.
Things to bear in mind
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.