What is emergency contraception (EC)?

Emergency contraception (EC) is a form of birth control that women can use within 72 (three days) to 120 hours (five days) — depending on the type of medication — of having unprotected vaginal sex. EC pills are a safe way to prevent pregnancy.

Although it is sometimes called the morning-after pill, you don’t need to wait until the next day. If you’ve had unprotected sex and have EC available, take it right away.

Another form of emergency contraception is an intrauterine device (IUD). This type of long-term birth control is inserted into your uterus by your healthcare provider. It’s very effective and doesn’t require you to do anything additional for pregnancy prevention. Your provider can insert an IUD after unprotected sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy.

When do I use emergency contraception (EC)?

You can use an emergency contraception method to prevent pregnancy if you recently had sex and:

  • Didn’t use a condom or other form of routine birth control.
  • Made a mistake with your regular birth control, such as forgetting to take the pill, changing your patch or missing a dose of the birth control shot.
  • The condom broke or slipped off after your partner ejaculated.
  • Your partner didn’t pull out in time.
  • You may also choose emergency contraception in cases of rape. If someone forced you to have sex or have unprotected sex, talk to a healthcare provider about your options. A health professional can help you avoid pregnancy and get care for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You may wish to contact the local authorities for legal action.

What emergency contraception (EC) pills are available?

Two types of EC pills are available:

  • Progestin-only (levonorgestrel): Plan B One-Step® or Next Choice™.
  • Ulipristal acetate: ella®.

It’s important to know that these two types of emergency contraception have different windows of time during which they are most effective at preventing pregnancy. Progestin-only pills are typically the most effective at preventing pregnancy within the first 72 hours (three days) after unprotected sexual intercourse. Ulipristal acetate has a slightly longer window of time — 120 hours (five days). You will have the best results with either medication when you take it as soon as possible after intercourse.

Are emergency contraception (EC) pills safe?

Yes. Millions of people have safely used EC for more than 30 years.

Can an IUD be used for emergency contraception (EC)?

A copper intrauterine device (IUD),  can be an emergency contraception option. It works if your provider inserts it within five days of unprotected sex. The copper IUD is 99.9% effective at preventing pregnancy when inserted after sex. It gives you at least 10 years of effective ongoing contraception.

How does emergency contraception (EC) work?

Typically, you don’t get pregnant immediately after having sex. After sex, sperm lives in your body for up to five days. If you ovulate (release an egg) during those five days, sperm can meet the egg and fertilize it, resulting in pregnancy.

EC pills prevent ovulation — they stop your ovary from releasing an egg. So if you’ve already ovulated, EC won’t work. That’s why it’s important to take the pill as soon as possible. Since you may not know exactly when you ovulate, take the pill as soon as you can.

The IUD is more effective because sperm doesn’t like the copper in the IUD. So even if you have ovulated, an IUD makes it harder for sperm to swim to meet the egg.

How effective is emergency contraception (EC)?

EC pills are about 89% effective if you take them within 72 hours (three days) of unprotected sex. You can take them up to five days after intercourse, but the sooner you take them after sex, the more effective they are. No EC method is 100% effective against pregnancy.

What factors might affect the effectiveness of emergency contraception (EC) pills?

If you carry excess weight, over-the-counter (OTC) pills may be less effective. Talk to your doctor about a prescription for ella® or a copper IUD. But if you can’t get one of those more effective methods within five days of intercourse, take the OTC medication.

Is one emergency contraception (EC) method more effective than another?

The prescription brand ella® is more effective than OTC methods because it works closer to the time of ovulation. The copper IUD is the most effective of all, working 99% of the time, no matter your weight. But use the most effective method you have available. The advantage of OTC pills is that they are easier for most people to access. IUDs and ella® require you to see a healthcare provider.

What type of emergency contraception (EC) is best for me?

The most effective EC method for you depends on:

  • When you had sex.
  • Which type is easiest for you to get.
  • Your weight.
  • If you’re breastfeeding.
  • If you used the pill, patch or ring in the last few days.
  • If you have malabsorption or prior bariatric surgery.

Does emergency contraception (EC) cause side effects?

If you take emergency contraceptive pills, you may experience some side effects, but they are usually short-lived. Symptoms of emergency contraception pills can include:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Breast pain.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea.

EC pills may also affect your next period. They may cause your period to be early or late. You may also get some spotting (bleeding between periods).

The copper IUD can cause other side effects, including menstrual pain and heavy bleeding. Your provider may prescribe a medication to lighten the flow. These effects mostly happen in the first few months with the IUD. If they go on longer than a year, talk to your provider about what to do.

Can I still get pregnant if I take emergency contraception (EC) pills?

No EC method can 100% prevent pregnancy. You may still get pregnant, even if you took the pills right away. If you don’t get a period within a week of when you normally expect it, take a pregnancy test and contact your healthcare provider.

Is emergency contraception (EC) the same as abortion?

No. Emergency contraception is not abortion. EC pills prevent the egg and sperm from meeting by delaying ovulation. Abortion happens after the sperm has fertilized the egg and created an embryo. Emergency contraception does not end a pregnancy — it prevents pregnancy from happening. If you are already pregnant, EC pills will not harm the pregnancy.

Can I take emergency contraception (EC) pills as a birth control method?

EC can effectively prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. But don’t use it as your regular method of birth control. It’s not as reliable as nonemergency methods, such as an IUD, birth control pills or condoms.

What’s the best way to prevent pregnancy?

If you are sexually active, find a regular birth control method that works for you and use it as directed. Several options are available, including condoms, IUD, the pill, patch or ring. It may be a good idea to get some EC pills ahead of time to keep on hand. That way, if you need it, you can take EC as soon as possible.

Will emergency contraception (EC) prevent me from getting an STI?

No, EC pills do not protect you from getting a sexually transmitted disease or infection (STDs or STIs). Condoms are the most effective way to protect against STIs, whether you have vaginal, oral or anal sex.

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