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Emergency Contraception Without a Prescription

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 6, 2001 -- Surprisingly few women in the U.S. know that if they have unprotected sex they can still avoid pregnancy by using high-dose birth control within three days. The method is known as emergency contraception or the 'morning after' pill, and women's health advocates are trying to make sure more women find out about it by putting it where it can't be missed: on the shelf of your local pharmacy.

This week, the makers of one emergency contraceptive announced that they have met with the FDA and will follow the rules prescribed by the agency to get permission to sell the product over the counter. It is currently only available with a doctor's prescription.

A representative for the company that makes the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B tells WebMD the product could be on drug store shelves within about 18 months.

Between now and then, the company must conduct two studies. The first is to satisfy the FDA that women of all ages and backgrounds can understand the instructions on how to use it. The other study, to be conducted in Washington state, will involve women actually using emergency contraception obtained from a pharmacy without a doctor's prescription.

In Washington, pharmacists have been allowed since 1998 to sell emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription on an urgent basis.

"We have kind of a living laboratory out there of women who have been using [emergency contraception] without a prescription and we are going to be doing actual use studies to mimic [over-the-counter] use in those pharmacies," says Sharon Camp, PhD, president of Women's Capital Corporation, which makes Plan B.

Emergency contraception pills like Plan B contain the same active ingredients as regular birth control pills -- estrogen plus progestin, or progestin alone -- but in higher doses. They can be used when a condom breaks, after a sexual assault, or whenever contraception is not used or fails to work properly. To be effective, the pills must be taken as soon as possible after the unprotected sexual encounter.

Emergency contraceptive pills interfere with conception, but they do not work if a woman is already pregnant.

"These pills won't cause an abortion or a miscarriage," says Jeffrey Waldman, MD. "If in fact you are pregnant when you take these pills, they will have no effect. The downside is the few minor side effects that you might have, like [nausea]. But basically, if you mistook the medication, the consequences are virtually nil."

Waldman, a California-based ob-gyn who is president of the medical director's council for Planned Parenthood, says having the product available on store shelves will provide women with more options than they currently have.

"It's not meant to replace contraception on a regular basis, but in an effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it's just another [option]," he tells WebMD.

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