Emergency contraception

Category: Women's health

Topic: Contraception

Emergency contraception can be used to prevent pregnancy after sex. This could happen:

  • if no contraception has been used
  • if a condom has slipped off or broken
  • if a woman forgot to take her usual contraceptive pills
  • if a woman has been sexually assaulted

Emergency contraception does not prevent sexually transmissible infections. Women who are sexually active are advised to talk with their local doctor, family planning clinic or sexual health clinic about reliable contraceptive methods and safer sexual behaviours.

There are several methods of emergency contraception available including the emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) and the intrauterine contraceptive device (IUCD).

When taken in the first 3 days after sex, the ECP prevents about 85% of expected pregnancies. However, it may still be useful if taken up to 4 or 5 days after sex. Try and obtain it as soon as possible to have the best chance of it working.

A Copper intrauterine device (IUD) is the most effective method of emergency contraception preventing 99% of expected pregnancies if inserted any time within 5 days of having sex.

The emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes called the morning after pill) contains special doses of the female hormones oestrogen and progestogen. These hormones are used in different doses in oral contraceptive pills. The emergency contraceptive pill may be either oestrogen and progestogen together, or just progestogen alone.

The ECP is available without a prescription at pharmacists. There are several different names for the ECP but they are all the same medication. Prices may vary. If you are having difficulty obtaining it, contact your general practitioner (GP), a family planning or sexual health clinic or a hospital Emergency Department.

Before you can be given the ECP, you will be asked a few questions to assess your risk of pregnancy and your medical history. Any personal information you share is confidential and you should be offered a private area to talk to the pharmacist.

Any woman can take the emergency contraceptive pill. Women who cannot take the oral contraceptive pill are able to take the emergency contraceptive pill.

The emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) can prevent pregnancy in a couple of ways:

  • If ovulation has not already occurred, it can delay ovulation – this means a delay in the egg being released from the ovary, so fertilisation cannot occur.
  • If an egg has been released and has been fertilised by sperm, the ECP can prevent the fertilised egg from implanting in the uterus. This means a pregnancy cannot develop.

If a woman is already pregnant and that pregnancy is already planted into the uterus, ECP will have no effect on that pregnancy.ECP is more likely to fail if:

  • it is more than three days since the episode of unprotected sex
  • if a woman has unprotected sex again before her next period
  • if a woman vomits after taking the ECP.

The common side effects of the emergency contraceptive pill includes:

  • nausea (feeling like vomiting) which occurs in up to half of all women given ECP
  • vomiting, which can occur but is less likely with newer preparations. If vomiting occurs within two hours, the dose should be repeated.
  • the next period may be early or delayed or come at the due time.

Tablets can be taken before the ECP to prevent nausea and vomiting.

The copper IUD is the most effective form of emergency contraceptive This is a device that is inserted through the cervix into the uterus (womb). It prevents pregnancy by interfering with fertilisation and preventing implantation. It also provides very effective long term contraception.

The copper IUD may not be suitable for some women. You can ask your doctor, sexual health service or family planning clinic for more information.

Practical Advice

For more information about emergency contraception, you can talk to:

  • your local doctor (GP)
  • your local sexual health clinic
  • your local family planning clinic
  • your local pharmacy.