Do you watch the television show
"ER"? During an episode in 1997, Nurse Hathaway (Carol) offered the
option of emergency contraception pills to a young woman who had just been
forced to have sex against her will. It's possible that between 5 and 6 million
people learned about emergency contraception that day.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost 3 million
unintended pregnancies happen each year in the United States. You can imagine
why -- a condom tears, a diaphragm slips out of position, a woman misses two
birth control pills in a row. Or, a couple has gotten "swept away" in
the momentum of lovemaking and has neglected to use birth control. Perhaps a
rape has occurred. Without treatment, eight in 100 women who have had one act
of unprotected intercourse during the second or third week of their cycle are
likely to become pregnant. With emergency contraception, only two women in 100
would be in the same situation.
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There are two types of emergency contraception pills (ECPs).
One is a combination of estrogen and progestin, and the other is a
progestin-only pill. Depending on when they are taken during the menstrual
cycle, ECPs can inhibit or delay ovulation; inhibit transport of the egg or
sperm; or alter the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation of a
How Does It Work?
ECPs, sometimes called the morning after pill, must be taken
within 72 hours of the unprotected intercourse. The pills are more effective
the earlier a woman takes them within the 72-hour time period.
Pills are taken in two doses, with the second dose taken 12
hours after the first. Each dose is one, two, four or five pills, depending on
the brand. You need a prescription to get ECPs, although some medical providers
are now writing prescriptions in advance.
Preven (levonorgestrel/ethinyl estradiol) is packaged
especially for emergency-contraceptive use. It contains both hormones, estrogen
and progestin, and reduces the chance of pregnancy by 75 percent. About 50
percent of women who take them feel nauseous and another 20 percent vomit.
Plan B (levonorgestrel) is progestin-only and has been on
the market since July of 1999. It's more effective than Preven and has fewer
side effects associated with it.