If you forget to use birth control or your usual method has failed, emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy after you've had sex.
Emergency contraceptives work by preventing fertilization and implantation, but they do not end a pregnancy after a woman is already pregnant. That is why it is important to use emergency contraception as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse.
Emergency contraception is designed as a "last chance" measure, but it can't protect you from sexually transmitted infections. While it isn't meant to be relied upon as your primary method of birth control, it is an effective backup in circumstances such as the following:
- You had sex and used no other form of birth control.
- Your usual form of birth control failed – the condom broke or slipped, your diaphragm slipped out of place or was removed too soon after sex, or you missed your birth control pills.
- You were on medication that may interfere with your oral contraceptives.
- You were sexually assaulted.
Depending on how long it has been since you had unprotected sex, there is more than one option for emergency contraception. The better-known method is hormonal, which can be used up to 72 to 120 hours (3 to 5 days) after unprotected sex, depending on the specific type used, and involves taking pills. Emergency contraception is also available as an intrauterine device.
Emergency contraception medication is available in these forms:
- There are emergency contraceptive products available without prescription at the dispensary counter in your local pharmacy. This option involves taking 1 or 2 progestogen pills, depending on the specific product, up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. Remember to speak to your pharmacist as there are factors such as body weight that may impact the effectiveness of this medication.
- Another form, known as the Yuzpe method, is available by prescription from your doctor. These are combination estrogen/progestogen pills. Take the pills in 2 divided doses, as directed by your doctor. Compared to the other hormonal emergency contraception methods, this option is less effective with more side effects, such as nausea and vomiting. This method can be used up to 72 hours (3 days) after unprotected sex.
- A medication called ulipristal may be used to prevent pregnancy for up to 5 days after unprotected intercourse. The medication works by inhibiting or delaying ovulation and may require a prescription from your doctor.
- With these methods of oral emergency contraception, your menstrual cycle may be altered a bit (periods may come earlier or later and be heavier or lighter; you may also experience some spotting); however, a regular menstrual cycle should still be expected at the normal time. If your period is more than a week late or if it does not does not come within 3 weeks after taking the emergency contraception pill, you should do a pregnancy test or see your doctor.
Intrauterine device (IUD):
- Copper IUDs can be used up to 7 days after unprotected intercourse and is very effective. It can also be used as an ongoing method of contraception. However, it may not be as readily available as some of the other emergency contraception options.
Emergency contraception should not be used regularly as the only method of preventing pregnancies (except for the copper IUD). Discuss with your doctor what regular forms of birth control are right for you.
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