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Emergency Contraception - Topic Overview

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception is a way to prevent pregnancy if:

  • You had sex without using birth control.
  • Your birth control method failed. Maybe you forgot to take your pill or get your shot, the condom broke or came off, or your diaphragm slipped.
  • You were sexually assaulted. Even if you were using birth control, emergency contraception can help decrease your chance of getting pregnant.

If you had sex without birth control, there is a chance that you could get pregnant. This is true even if you have not started having periods yet or you are getting close to menopause. You could also get pregnant if you used a birth control method that is not very reliable or if you didn't use it the right way.

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Using emergency contraception right away can prevent an unwanted pregnancy and keep you from worrying while you wait for your next period to start.

What are the types of emergency contraception?

There are two main types of emergency contraception: pills and the copper intrauterine device (IUD). Most women choose pills because they work well, don't cost a lot, and are usually easy to get. The IUD works very well, but it has to be inserted by a doctor.

  • Emergency contraception pills: Pills used for emergency contraception are sometimes called "morning-after pills." They can be used at any time up to 5 days after unprotected sex, but the sooner, the better.
    • The most common option contains a progestin hormone called levonorgestrel. Progestin is a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone.
    • Another option is a medicine called ulipristal (for example, Ella) that affects the progesterone in your body.
    • Some birth control pills are also used. These often contain a combination of the hormones estrogen and progestin. If you already take birth control pills, you may be able to use the pills you have as emergency contraception. Talk to your doctor or check the websites listed below for the correct doses.
  • IUDIUD: The copper IUD is a small, T-shaped plastic device that is inserted into your uterus. The IUD is wrapped in copper, which helps kill sperm. It can be placed up to 5 to 7 days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. (Note: The hormonal IUD, such as the Mirena, is not used for emergency contraception.)

How does it work?

Emergency contraception pills work by preventing ovulation, fertilization, or implantation.

Emergency contraception hormones may prevent fertilization by stopping the ovary from releasing an egg (ovum). They also make the fallopian tubes less likely to move an egg toward the uterus. Emergency contraception is also thought to thin the lining of the uterus, or endometrium. The thickened endometrium is where a fertilized egg would normally implant and grow.

The copper IUD for emergency contraception may work by killing sperm, preventing fertilization, or preventing implantation.

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