The morning after pill: emergency contraception explained

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How emergency contraception works and where you can go to get the morning after pill.

Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Rita Ghelani (BPharm, MRPharmS)

In need of emergency contraception? If it’s the morning after the night before and things didn’t go to plan, don’t panic! To prevent an unwanted pregnancy after having unprotected sex you can use emergency contraception, provided you follow the instructions. Pharmacist Rita Ghelani explains:

What is emergency contraception?

There are two forms of emergency contraception that can be used after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy, namely the morning after pill and the emergency IUD – also known as ‘the emergency coil’.

The emergency IUD (intrauterine device) is the most effective form of emergency contraception. It’s a small plastic and copper device which is inserted into the womb via the vagina and as well as providing emergency contraception, it can remain in place as a long term contraceptive too.

When it comes to the morning after pill – you have a choice of two different pills – containing either ulipristal acetate or levonorgestrel.

Visit your GP or find a sexual health clinic near you to speak to a healthcare professional about the various treatments available, so you can make a choice based on what is most suitable for you.

Can you buy the morning after pill online?

It is possible to order the morning after pill online. In order to do this, you must complete a selection of health-related questions on the pharmacy website to ensure the medication is appropriate for you in terms of time frame, interactions and allergies. After the answers have been checked and approved you can arrange delivery or collection from the pharmacy.

⚠️ For online pharmacies offering this service, visit ellaOne. But remember: emergency contraception is more effective the sooner it is taken.

Do you need a doctor’s appointment?

If you need emergency contraception, you can head straight to the pharmacy to get the morning after pill after a quick consultation with the pharmacist – you don’t need to get a prescription from your doctor, although it is also possible to go down this route, too.

How does the morning after pill work?

Contrary to popular belief, the morning after pill does not cause an ’emergency period’ or an abortion. It actually works by delaying egg release (ovulation), meaning that the sperm waiting in the fallopian tubes will be unable to meet an egg and fertilise it.

This is similar to regular contraceptive pills, which mostly work by preventing egg release. If you are already pregnant, emergency contraception will not interrupt your pregnancy.

⚠️ Emergency contraception won’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections. If you’re having sex with a new partner, always use a condom.

Does the morning after pill affect fertility?

Emergency contraception has no effect on future fertility, so it won’t protect you from pregnancy if you have unprotected sex again several days after taking it.

If you want to have sex after using emergency contraception, use a barrier method, such as a condom.

Although oral emergency contraceptive pills must be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex, don’t panic if you haven’t been able to take it immediately.

  • Levonorgestrelcan be taken within 3 days (72 hours) of unprotected sex.
  • ellaOne(ulipristal acetate) can be taken within 5 days (120 hours).

Both pills work by preventing or delaying ovulation and must therefore be taken as soon as possible, as they are not effective if ovulation has already taken place. They are less effective the later you leave it.

The emergency IUD is more effective than emergency contraceptive pills. It can be inserted up to five days after unprotected sex or up to five days after the earliest time you could have ovulated. Your doctor may suggest you take an emergency contraceptive pill straight away whilst arranging an IUD fitting for you.

Am I pregnant?

No method of emergency contraceptive has a 100 per cent guarantee of success. Your next period should come approximately when you are expecting it (unless you have started a longer term hormonal contraceptive immediately after your emergency contraceptive).

If your period is more than seven days late, then you should do a pregnancy test. A negative pregnancy test three weeks after you had unprotected sex will give you the reassurance that you are not pregnant.

Remember too that unprotected sex puts you at risk of sexually transmitted infections and you can attend a sexual health clinic for a screen.

Longer term contraception options

Emergency contraception is not as effective as using regular contraception, so if you’ve had to use it then it’s a good idea to consider your contraception needs. Have a chat to the health care professional who provides your emergency contraception as to what method might suit you best.

People often tend to think that the pill is their only option but there are many more to choose from, plenty of which don’t require you to remember to take them every day. As well as IUDs, there are contraceptive injectionsimplantsvaginal rings and contraceptive patches. You need to find what works best for you and that may not be the same as what works best for your friends so don’t be afraid to try something new.

Net Doctor

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