The copper IUD is a type of long-term birth control that you can also use for emergency contraception if you get it inserted within 5 days after you have sex.
How Does a Copper IUD Work?
A copper IUD, or intrauterine device, is a small, T-shaped device made of copper or flexible plastic wrapped in copper. The doctor places it inside your uterus to prevent pregnancy. It does so by stopping sperm from reaching your egg.
A copper IUD is different from a hormonal IUD, which releases the hormone progestin to prevent pregnancy.
There’s only one type of copper IUD available in the U.S. right now. It’s called ParaGard.
How Well Does It Work as Emergency Contraception?
“Copper IUDs are a very effective form of emergency contraception,” says Lisa Holloway, a nurse practitioner near Washington, DC, who specializes in women’s health. It’s close to 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. Emergency contraception pills, which are the other option for emergency contraception, are about 90% effective.
You can get a copper IUD as emergency contraception up to 5 days after you’ve had unprotected sex to prevent fertilization. You may be able to use it beyond the 5-day time frame if you know when you last ovulated and it’s within 5 days of ovulating.
Using a copper IUD for emergency contraception isn’t the same as an abortion, which ends an existing pregnancy. A copper IUD prevents pregnancy from happening. If you’re already pregnant, it doesn’t work.
The copper IUD works quickly and may also prevent you from getting pregnant later. Research suggests women who get a copper IUD for emergency contraception are more likely to keep it in and use it as long-term birth control. So they’re less likely than women who choose emergency contraception pills to get pregnant in the first year after using an emergency method.
How to Get a Copper IUD
You need a prescription to get a copper IUD. Call your doctor or a family planning clinic to make an appointment. The doctor will insert the IUD through your vagina into your uterus.
A copper IUD is also a long-term form of birth control. After you get it, you can keep it in to prevent pregnancy for up to 10-12 years. You can have it removed anytime. If you want to get pregnant, you can start trying as soon as it’s out.
Removing It After Emergency Contraception
If you don’t want to use a copper IUD long term, you can get it removed it when you’re ready. The doctor will take it out at their office. You may have light bleeding and cramping during and after the procedure.
If you remove your IUD right after emergency contraception, you lose some of its benefits. It costs the same whether you have it for 1 month or 10 years. Once it’s out, you won’t be protected against pregnancy. “A copper IUD is easy to remove, but it’s not cost-effective,” says Tara Scott, MD, a functional gynecologist in Akron, OH.
If you plan to insert and then remove an IUD, you need a plan for which birth control method you’ll use once it's removed, Holloway says.
Pros and Cons
There are many benefits of using a copper IUD, including:
- It’s the most effective form of contraception.
- You can use it as emergency contraception when you get it inserted within 5 days of having unprotected sex.
- It’s also a highly effective form of long-term birth control. You can keep it in to avoid getting pregnant for up to 10-12 years after you get it.
- But if you change your mind and want to get pregnant, you can start trying as soon as the IUD comes out.
- It works well even if you’re overweight, which isn’t always true with emergency contraception pills.
There are also drawbacks of using a copper IUD, such as:
- You need a prescription. You may be able to get some emergency contraception pills over the counter.
- Getting it inserted may be uncomfortable, especially if you’ve never had children.
- It may change your periods. They could last longer or you could have a heavier flow. “You shouldn’t use the copper IUD as your birth control of choice if you have a baseline problem with painful, heavy periods,” Holloway says.
- They may have other side effects, like making anxiety worse, Scott says.
The copper IUD doesn’t protect you against STDs, including HIV.
Everyone’s different, and there are things to think about when you make a decision about emergency birth control. Talk to your doctor about your options. “I would encourage all women considering this option to discuss what emergency contraception is the best method for them,” Holloway says.