Emergency contraception (The Basics)

What is emergency contraception? — Emergency contraception is also called “the morning after pill,” or “plan B.” It is a way you can keep from getting pregnant if you recently had sex. A woman might use emergency contraception if:

  • She forgot to take her birth control pills
  • A condom broke or slipped off during sex
  • She had sex without using birth control
  • She was raped

Are there different types of emergency contraception? — Yes. There are 2 types of emergency contraception. One type is pills. The other is a device that goes inside your body. It is called a copper intrauterine device. You may have heard it called an “IUD.” If you want an IUD, a nurse or doctor needs to put it in within 5 days of when you had sex. An IUD prevents pregnancy as long as it is in place. If you decide you want one, your doctor or nurse can tell you more about it.

Do I need to see a doctor or nurse to get emergency contraception pills? — That depends on the kind of pill you would like.

There are 2 types of emergency contraception pills that are hormones:

  • One type is called “Plan B® One-Step,” or “Next Choice®.” Anyone who is at least 17 years old can buy it without a prescription at many drug stores or at Planned Parenthood. (If you want to buy it, call ahead to the drug store to make sure they have it.) Women 16 years old and younger must have a prescription.
  • The other pills that work for emergency contraception are really birth control pills, but you have to take more than 1 at a time to keep from getting pregnant. This approach works, but it is less effective than Plan B® One-Step, or Next Choice®, and it is more likely to cause nausea. This table tells you which birth control pills you can use for emergency contraception, which color pills to take, and how many (table 1). Birth control pills require a prescription.

A third kind of emergency contraception pill is called “ella®.” It is not a hormone and is available only by prescription.

When do I take emergency contraception? — Take the pills as soon as possible after you have sex. The pills can work up to 5 days after you have sex.

Hormonal emergency contraception works best if you take it within 3 days of having unprotected sex. It is less effective if you take it 3 to 5 days after unprotected sex. If it has been 3 or more days since you had unprotected sex, ella® might be a better option for you. It is more effective than hormonal emergency contraception from 3 to 5 days after unprotected sex.

If you have sex again after you take the pills, you can still get pregnant. Make sure you use a condom or another type of birth control if you have sex again after you took emergency contraception.

What if I throw up? — Emergency contraception pills make some women throw up. If you throw up less than an hour after you take the pills, you have to take them again. Before you take them again, take a medicine that helps keep you from throwing up called meclizine. You can get meclizine without a prescription. It is sold in drug stores under the brand names Antivert®, Bonine®, Dramamine®, and Medi-Meclizine. If you find you throw up with birth control pills, try Plan B® One Step or Next Choice® instead. These medicines are less likely to make you throw up.

If you throw up within 3 hours of taking ella®, call your doctor or nurse. He or she can tell you if you should take another pill.

Get it before you need it — Even though hormonal emergency contraception is sold without a prescription, it is not always easy to find. Buy some today—even if you don’t need it. That way you will have it at home, just in case.

What happens after I take emergency contraception? — You should get your period within a week of when you expect it. If you took ella®, don’t be surprised if your period is a few days late. That’s normal. But if you do not get your period within 3 or 4 weeks, no matter which form of emergency contraception you took, get a pregnancy test. The pills may not have worked. If you keep bleeding or have pain in your belly, see your doctor or nurse.

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