What is Emergency Contraception?
If you recently had unprotected sex and are worried you could become pregnant, emergency contraception (EC) may be an option for you. Unprotected sex is any sex without hormonal birth control or a condom. For example, maybe you forgot to take your birth control pill or a condom slipped or broke.
Emergency contraception is also a safe and effective option after rape or sexual assault.*
When used correctly, emergency contraception is safe and greatly lowers your chance of getting pregnant after vaginal sex.
EC is not abortion medication. EC prevents a pregnancy from happening. EC does not and cannot end a pregnancy and is not intended for that purpose. If you use EC to try to end a pregnancy, it will not work. If you don’t know you are pregnant and take an EC method, it will not harm your pregnancy either.
How Emergency Contraception Works – Timing is Everything
Pregnancy doesn’t happen right after sex, which is why you are able to prevent pregnancy if you take EC within a few days of sex. Sperm can live inside your body for up to 6 days after sex. If your body releases an egg (ovulates) while the sperm are still inside you, the sperm can connect with your egg and cause pregnancy.
EC pills use hormones or medications to prevent a pregnancy. Most ECs use the same hormones that are in regular birth control pills. These pills delay the release of an egg. Morning-after pills work by temporarily stopping your ovary from releasing an egg. Depending on the day of your menstrual cycle, when you had sex and how soon you take EC all affect how well the EC can prevent pregnancy.
This is why timing is so important, especially if you’re using Plan B or another over-the-counter EC pill. A lot of people don’t know when they ovulate, which makes taking EC as soon as possible even more important.
If ovulation has already occurred and the egg has become fertilized and implanted inside the uterus, or womb, a pregnancy has occurred. In this case, EC will not work and will not end a pregnancy, no matter how early after sex you take it.
How Effective is Emergency Contraception?
Emergency contraception works extremely well. An intrauterine device (IUD) is the most effective type of EC. Over-the-counter EC pills work very well, especially when you take it within 24 hours of having unprotected sex. You may have heard the term “the morning after pill;” however, you can take EC up to 72 hours (three days) after unprotected sex.
Some types of EC can be used up to five days after unprotected sex, but the sooner you take EC, the better. EC becomes less effective the longer you wait Over-the-counter EC may not work as well if you weigh over 165 lbs. Another EC option, ella, is available by prescription and may be more effective if you weigh up to 195 lbs.
Is Emergency Contraception Safe?
Emergency contraception has been used by millions of people and studied for over 30 years. No reports of serious complications have been found. Emergency contraception is very safe when used correctly.
Taking a morning-after pill whenever you need to is totally safe and won’t hurt you. But EC is not the best or most convenient long-term birth control method. It won’t prevent pregnancy as well as other forms of birth control like the IUD, implant, pill, shot or ring. Morning-after pills are much more expensive than using regular birth control and do not prevent sexually transmitted infections.
You should never take two types of EC at the same time because they may interfere with each other and not work. You also should not take more than the prescribed dose. Taking more than the prescribed dose will not increase your chance of preventing pregnancy, but it may make you feel sick.
Types of Emergency Contraception and How to Get Them
Non-prescription EC includes hormonal pills that contain levonorgestrel. These are easiest to get, either in a pharmacy, store with a pharmacy and over-the-counter medications, or online. If you are sexually active, keeping one of these EC pills on hand is smart, especially during this COVID pandemic when access may be limited depending on where you live.
There was a previous age restriction requiring a prescription if you were under age 17. However, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has removed this requirement and no prescription is required for levonorgestrel EC pills no matter your age. You also do not need a parent, guardian or other adult with you to purchase one of these options.
Using the online option is a good option if you want to have EC on hand because you have to wait a day or longer before you receive it. You might be stuck waiting too long to prevent pregnancy.
Non-prescription EC pills are very effective, but less effective than prescription IUD implants and ella (a prescription EC pill). These pills are also less effective if you weigh more than a certain amount or are taking certain other medications. Be sure to check with your provider or pharmacist if you are on any other medications or if there are weight restrictions that may reduce the effectiveness.
Over-the-counter EC options include:
- Plan B One-Step
- My Way
- Take Action
- Next Choice One Dose
- Opcicon One-Step
- Fallback Solo
- Athentia Next
Prescription methods of EC include the copper IUD and the ella morning after pill:
- Paragard IUD (copper T)
- The most effective type of EC—works 99 times out of 100, no matter your weight
- Requires a healthcare provider to put it in during an office visit
- Prevents pregnancy for up to 10-12 years
- Must be removed when you decide you want to get pregnant
- May be less effective if you weigh over 195 pounds
- Does not lose effectiveness over time like over-the-counter pill forms of EC
Deciding Which Emergency Contraception Method is Best for You
The best EC for you depends on a few factors:
- When you had sex
- Which kind of EC is easiest for you to get and fastest to get
- Your weight
- If you’re breastfeeding
- If you’ve used the pill, patch, or ring in the last 5 days
If you have questions or need help choosing the best EC for you, contact your nearest NJFPL-supported health center.
* If you have experienced sexual violence and would like to speak with someone about it, you can call New Jersey’s 24-hour Statewide Hotline at 1-800-601-7200. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) has additional resources, including a listing of county-based programs where you can find help.