Emergency contraception is used to prevent pregnancy after having sex without birth control or if a problem occurred with the method of birth control used. It is a good option for women who have had unprotected sex and do not want to become pregnant. This article explains:


To understand how emergency contraception works, you should know what happens during reproduction. A woman has two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. Each month, one of the ovaries releases an egg into a fallopian tube. This is called ovulation. It typically occurs about 12-14 days before the start of the menstrual period.

A woman can get pregnant if she has sex around the time of ovulation. During sex, the man ejaculates sperm into the vagina. The sperm travel up through the cervix and into the fallopian tubes.

If a sperm meets an egg in the fallopian tube, fertilization"union of egg and sperm" can occur. The fertilized egg then moves down the fallopian tube to the uterus. It then attaches to the uterus and grows into a fetus.

About Emergency Contraception

Emergency contraception is a type of hormonal birth control. It can be used if you have unprotected sex and don't want to get pregnant. It should not be used on a routine basis: regular use of a birth control method (such as condoms or birth control pills) is most effective. You may need emergency contraception if:

  • You didn't use any birth control.
  • You had sex when you didn't plan to.
  • A condom broke or slipped off.
  • A diaphragm or cervical cap became dislodged.
  • Birth control was not used correctly.
  • You were forced to have sex (rape).

There are many more reasons why someone has unprotected sex. No matter the reason, emergency contraception may be a good choice to prevent you from getting pregnant.

The most commonly used method of emergency contraception is pills (also known as the "morning-after pill"). If there is some reason you should not take birth control pills, you may not be able to take emergency contraception. The intrauterine device (IUD) also can be used for emergency contraception.

Doctor's offices, family planning clinics, and hospital emergency rooms can prescribe emergency contraception pills. In some states, pharmacists can provide emergency contraception. If you have had unprotected sex, call your doctor's office right away. Be sure to tell them you need treatment without delay. In some cases, your doctor can call in a prescription for you to your drugstore.

You may want to ask your doctor to give you an advance prescription for emergency contraception. This way, you will have it on hand if you need it. The sooner treatment begins, the more effective the method.

Do not use emergency contraception routinely instead of birth control. Regular use of a birth control method is not only more effective, but provides health benefits that emergency contraception does not have.

How Emergency Contraception Works

Emergency contraception is highly effective in preventing pregnancy. Pills must be started within 72 hours of having unprotected sex and will reduce the risk of pregnancy by at least 75%. The sooner emergency contraception is used, the more effective it is in preventing pregnancy. If you are already pregnant, emergency contraception will not work.

There are two types of emergency contraception pills. One type is combined birth control pills (containing both estrogen and progestin). The other type contains only progestin and is safer for women who can't take estrogen. The progestin-only method may be more effective and is less likely to cause nausea.

Both types of pills work the same way. The hormones in these pills prevent pregnancy because they disrupt the normal patterns in the menstrual cycle. Depending on where a woman is in her menstrual cycle, these pills may:

  • Prevent ovulation
  • Block fertilization
  • Keep a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus

How to Take Emergency Contraception

Emergency contraception pills may be prescribed to you in one of three forms:

  1. A specific dosage of regular birth control pills (contains estrogen and progestin)
  2. A prepared kit of four pills (contains estrogen and progestin) that may come with a pregnancy test
  3. A package with two pills (contains progestin only)

The kit with the pregnancy test and four pills also contains detailed instructions. You should read them first. You should then take the pregnancy test to confirm you are not pregnant from a previous time you had sex.

If you take a pregnancy test and the result is positive, do not take the pills. Emergency contraception will not work if you are pregnant. Talk to your doctor. If the test results are negative, take the pills as directed to prevent pregnancy.

For the pills to work, timing is everything. The sooner you start them, the better. The pills are given in two doses. To prevent pregnancy, the first dose of pills must be taken by mouth within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. A second dose is taken 12 hours after the first dose. The number of pills in the dose depends on the brand of pill used.

After taking the pills, you may have some nausea and vomiting. The progestin-only pills cause less of this. The side effects will go away in about 1 or 2 days. Your doctor may give you an antinausea medicine to take 1 hour before you take the pills. These medicines do not work as well if you wait to take them until after you feel nauseated.

If you vomit within 1 hour of taking either dose, let your doctor know right away. You may need to repeat that dose. If you vomit after 3 hours, you have absorbed enough of the dose and do not need to repeat it.

Side Effects

Besides the typical side effects of nausea and vomiting, other side effects may include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Tender breasts
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Any side effects will go away within a few days. Also, your next period may not be regular. It may be early or late, or light or heavy.

Follow-up Care

If you use emergency contraception pills within 72 hours of unprotected sex, your chance of getting pregnant is greatly reduced. However, there is still a chance you could become pregnant. If you do become pregnant, emergency contraception will not have any effect on the pregnancy or the health of the baby.

If you have sex after you use emergency contraception pills, you should use a backup method, such as a condom, until you get your period. If you were taking birth control pills before, you should keep taking the pills and use a backup method. If you have not had a period within 21 days of taking the pills, you should see your doctor for a pregnancy test.

Keep in mind that emergency contraception does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Your doctor may suggest that you be tested for STDs.

Finally . . . Using birth control when you have sex is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Ask your doctor about a method of birth control that you can use regularly. However, if you have sex without birth control, you can use emergency contraception. It is simple and safe. It can greatly reduce the chance of pregnancy after unprotected sex. Call your doctor right away if you've had unprotected sex and don't want to become pregnant.



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