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Emergency contraception (EC) is an effective back-up birth control method that can prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse or contraceptive failure, such as a broken condom. The most common form of EC is emergency contraceptive pills, which contain high doses of the same hormones found in daily birth control pills.

As with daily birth control pills, new forms of emergency contraceptive pills are continuing to enter the market, giving women more options and more time in case of an emergency.

Emergency contraception is not to be meant as routine contraception and should not be confused with Mifeprex (RU-486). EC helps to prevent pregnancy, while Mifeprex terminates an early pregnancy.

What Are The Different Types Of Emergency Contraception Pills?

The first type of EC to be introduced (Plan B) consisted of two pills, the first of which must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, and the second 12 hours later. A new form (known as Plan B One-Step™), has been introduced to replace the original version and consists of only one pill. There is also a generic form of emergency contraception available (Next Choice®), which consists of two pills. The first must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex and the second 12 hours later.

A new of EC (known as Ella®, or EllaOne® in Europe) has been proven effective up to as much as five days after unprotected sex, and is just now being introduced in the United States.

Is Emergency Contraception The Same Thing As The “Morning-After Pill”?

Because EC can help reduce the risk of pregnancy after unprotected sex, it is often referred to as the “morning-after pill.” However, EC does not need to be taken the morning after in order for it to be effective. A woman can take EC up to 72 hours after unprotected intercourse or birth control failure.

How Do Emergency Contraceptive Pills Work?

Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy the same way that the daily pill does: by delaying or preventing ovulation, preventing fertilization, or preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. All of these events occur before the beginning of pregnancy, which science defines as the implantation of a fertilized egg in the lining of a woman’s uterus. Implantation typically occurs five to seven days after fertilization of the egg. Emergency contraception does not interrupt a pregnancy and will not work if a woman is already pregnant.

How Effective Is Emergency Contraception?

Emergency contraception pills containing only progestin reduce the risk of pregnancy after unprotected intercourse by 85 percent; combined estrogen-progestin pills reduce the risk by 75 percent. However, an 85 percent reduction in the risk of pregnancy does not mean that 15 percent of people using EC will become pregnant. Rather, if 100 women take EC after having unprotected sex in the second or third week of their menstrual cycles, only one will become pregnant. Without EC, an average of eight of the 100 women would become pregnant.

Recent data also shows that the sooner a woman takes EC, the more effective it is.

Are there any side effects associated with emergency contraception pills?

Some women using EC may experience temporary side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and breast tenderness. These symptoms are more common with combined estrogen-progestin pills than with the progestin-only pills. There are no known serious side effects of using emergency contraception pills. If a woman who is already pregnant takes EC pills, there are no known risks to the developing fetus.

Why Would A Woman Need Emergency Contraceptive Pills?

Approximately 3 million unintended pregnancies occur each year in the United States. Researchers estimate that roughly half the unintended pregnancies in the U.S could be prevented by widespread awareness and use of emergency contraception.  Half of these happen to women who are using a regular method of birth control. Despite the highly effective birth control methods women have to choose from, none is 100 percent effective. And sometimes, mistakes happen — a condom breaks, a woman forgets to take her pill. Or she has sex when she didn’t plan to — or want to. One of the reasons a woman might need emergency contraception is in the case of rape. Each year, thousands of American women are the victims of this violent crime. By offering a woman the option of taking emergency contraception, healthcare providers can help to eliminate at least one trauma associated with rape — the fear of an unwanted pregnancy.

Where Can Women Get Emergency Contraception?

Emergency contraception is available over-the-counter in many states to consumers aged 17 or older. If you are under the age of 16, you need a doctor’s prescription to obtain emergency contraception. It’s a good idea to call the pharmacy ahead of time to make sure EC is available; it can only be obtained if a licensed pharmacist is on duty.

If you have questions about EC or wish to see a physician before taking EC, please contact our office as soon as possible after having unprotected intercourse.

Where Can Women Get More Information?

For more information on emergency contraception, call the automated, 24-hour, toll-free hotline at 1-800-NOT-2-LATE (or the Spanish mnemonic 1-866-EN-TRES-DIAS). The Emergency Contraception Web site Not 2 Late also provides guidance about where to obtain EC in a given area. Or contact the Center for Women’s Health for assistance..

For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact the Center for Women’s Health at 913-491-6878.