What Is It?
Emergency contraception is a way to prevent pregnancy after
unprotected sex. Often called the morning-after pill, emergency
contraceptive pills (ECPs) are hormone pills that can be taken up
to 72 hours after having unprotected sex.
Most states require a doctor to prescribe emergency
contraception; however, recently some states have allowed
nonphysicians to provide ECPs. Either way it is important to seek
medical help and guidance.
Emergency contraception is most effective when it is taken as
soon as possible after intercourse. But some studies have shown
that it can still work up to 120 hours after intercourse.
intrauterine device (IUD)
can sometimes be used as a form of emergency contraception. This is
rarely prescribed for teens, though.
How Does It Work?
In high doses, the hormones estrogen and progesterone can
prevent pregnancy. The number of pills taken depends on the type of
pill being used. The first dose of pills should be taken within 72
hours of unprotected intercourse followed by a second dose of pills
12 hours later.
The hormones may work in a number of ways to prevent pregnancy.
They may delay ovulation (the release of an egg during a girl's
monthly cycle), affect the movement and function of the sperm,
affect the development of the uterine lining, and disrupt the
actual fertilization process.
ECPs are less effective if fertilization has already occurred.
If implantation has already occurred and a girl is pregnant, ECPs
will not interrupt the pregnancy.
How Well Does It Work?
About 1 or 2 in every 100 women who use ECPs will become
pregnant despite taking ECPs within 72 hours after having
unprotected sex. The effectiveness of emergency contraception
methods is calculated differently from the effectiveness of other
contraceptives because of how they are used. Emergency
contraception is the only type of contraception method that is used
Emergency contraception is most effective when taken as soon as
possible after unprotected sex. Because of this, the name
morning-after pill is somewhat misleading: Ideally the pill should
be taken immediately after sex, without waiting for the next
Emergency contraception will not prevent pregnancy if a girl has
taking the ECPs.
Because emergency contraception does not prevent all
pregnancies, a woman should see her doctor if she doesn't get
her next expected period after taking it.
Protection Against STDs
sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
. Couples having sex must always use
to protect against STDs even when using another method of birth
Abstinence (not having sex) is the only method that always
prevents pregnancy and STDs. If a girl has been forced to have
, she should see a doctor right away to be tested for STDs.
That's because it's important to treat some STDs
immediately before they develop into bigger problems.
Possible Side Effects
The larger-than-normal dose of hormone causes some side effects
in many of the women receiving emergency contraception pills. These
side effects include nausea, vomiting, breast tenderness, and
headache. Such side effects are usually minor, and most improve
within 1 to 2 days. A girl's menstrual period may be
temporarily irregular after taking ECPs.
Who Uses It?
Emergency contraception is
recommended as a regular birth control method. Instead, it is used
for emergencies only. If a couple is having sex and the condom
breaks or slips off, if a diaphragm or cervical cap slips out of
place, or if a girl forgot to take her birth control pills for 2
days in a row, a girl may want to consider using emergency
contraception. It is also available to teens who are forced to have
Emergency contraception is not recommended for girls who
they are pregnant.
How Do You Get It?
In most cases, teens need to get ECPs through a doctor or a
health clinic. Some states allow pharmacists to sell ECPs to teens
without a prescription. However, since laws change all the time and
only some pharmacists are able to do this, call your pharmacy to
find out if it is possible to get ECPs without a prescription.
ECPs are sold over the counter in pharmacies to people over 18,
with proof of age.
ECPs need to be used
as soon as possible
after having unprotected sex. To find out who can provide or
prescribe ECPs in your area, call the The Association of
Reproductive Health Professionals hotline at (888) NOT 2 LATE.
How Much Does It Cost?
Depending on the types of pills that are prescribed, the
emergency contraceptive pill costs between $8 and $35. Many health
insurance plans cover the cost of emergency contraception and
family planning clinics (such as Planned Parenthood) may charge
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: March 2009
Originally reviewed by:
Neil Izenberg, MD, and George A. Macones, MD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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