Emergency Contraception (Morning After Pill)
Emergency contraception, also called the "morning after pill", keeps a woman from getting pregnant when she has had unprotected vaginal intercourse.
"Unprotected" can mean that no method of birth control was used. It can also mean that a birth control method was used but it was used incorrectly, or did not work (like a condom breaking). Or, a woman may have forgotten to take her birth control pills. She also may have been abused or forced to have sex.
These are just some of the reasons women may need emergency contraception.
Emergency contraception can be taken as a single pill treatment or in two doses. A single dose treatment works as well as two doses and does not have more side effects. It works by stopping the ovaries from releasing an egg or keeping the sperm from joining with the egg. For the best chances for it to work, take the pill as soon as possible after unprotected sex. It should be taken within 72 hours after having unprotected sex.
Brand names of emergency contraception medications include Plan B® One-Step or Next Choic®.
How does emergency contraception work?
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 moves down the fallopian tube to the uterus. It then attaches to the uterus and grows into a fetus.
Two methods of birth control can be used for emergency contraception. The most commonly used method is pills (also known as the "morning-after pill"). Birth control pills contain the hormones estrogen and progestin or, in some cases, progestin only. The progestin-only method is more effective and is less likely to cause nausea. The intrauterine device (IUD) also can be used for emergency contraception. It must be inserted by a doctor.
How do I get emergency contraception?
If you are aged 18 years or older, emergency contraception can be bought in many places, including drugstores, without a prescription by asking the pharmacist. If you are younger than 18 years and need emergency contraception, call your doctor's office or go to a family planning clinic or hospital emergency room. Tell them you need treatment right away. Your doctor can call in a prescription to a drugstore for you or you can get it directly from a pharmacy. You also can call the Emergency Contraception Hotline (888-NOT-2-LATE) to find a doctor who will provide you with a prescription.
Many doctors will give you an advance prescription for emergency contraception. This way, you will have it on hand if you need it.
How do I take emergency contraception?
Emergency contraception pills may be prescribed in one of two forms:
- A specific dosage of regular birth control pills (contains estrogen and progestin)
- A package with two pills (contains progestin only)
The pills are given in two doses. To prevent pregnancy, the first dose of pills must be taken by mouth as soon as possible, ideally within 3 days (72 hours), but no later than 5 days (120 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. For progestin-only pills, both doses can be taken at the same time or 12–24 hours apart.
Reference: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention