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Fact Sheet

Emergency contraception

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What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception is a special type of oral contraceptive that can be used if you didn’t use a contraceptive during sex, or if you used a condom that broke. Emergency contraception reduces the chance of pregnancy. While there are other emergency contraception pills, including certain brands of daily birth control pills,  the only pill developed specifically for emergency contraception—is Plan B, which is sometimes called the “morning after pill.” This name can be misleading, because its use is not limited to just the morning after. It can actually be effective if used up to five days after having unprotected sex. However, the sooner you start the better your chances of not getting pregnant.

How does emergency contraception work?

Plan B is a series of two or more pills. Other types of emergency contraception may require more pills. Emergency contraception works in two ways: It can delay ovulation, or the release of an egg from a woman’s ovaries; or it can thicken a woman’s cervical membrane to prevent sperm from reaching an egg. If you use emergency contraception, you should continue to use other forms of contraception, like birth control pills or condoms. Without continual protection, you could still become pregnant.  It is important to understand that taking emergency contraception does not guarantee you won’t get pregnant and it will not have any effect if you are already pregnant. It also will not protect you from getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Where can you get emergency contraception?

Plan B is available for women 17 and older at most drug stores with pharmacies, health centers and Planned Parenthood clinics.  This contraception will not be on the shelves but behind the counter.  You must ask the pharmacist for them.  If you’re younger than 17, you will need to go to a health center or visit your medical doctor to get a prescription for emergency contraception, with one exception. In some states, women under 18 can get emergency contraceptives directly from some pharmacists without a prescription. This is possible because of special pharmacy regulations in these states. Even in states that allow this, not all pharmacists participate, so be sure to call ahead to see a participating pharmacist is on duty. Click to see if you live in a participating state.

Pharmacists are required to counsel anyone who wants to purchase emergency contraception. If you take emergency contraception, a pharmacist will give you some written information and ask a few questions. This will include asking you about other medication you are taking that could interfere with the effects of emergency contraception.

How should you take it?

If you have unprotected sex and you don’t want to get pregnant, you need to take the first dose of Plan B within 5 days, but it’s more effective the earlier you take it. There are several types of emergency contraception pills that you can use, and some might require you to take as many as 12 pills in two doses over 12 hours. Whichever kind of emergency contraception you take, it is important to take it exactly as it’s recommended. You can safely use any of these methods more than once in a menstrual cycle.

If you’re worried about taking emergency contraception, it might help to speak to a doctor, nurse or counselor who can talk you through it. You can also find someone to speak to at a family planning center or a women’s health center.

What to expect after taking emergency contraception

After taking emergency contraception, there can be some side effects. You might feel nauseous and some women throw up. Most women have a period at about the expected time. Your period might be lighter or heavier than usual, or spotty. If your period is more than a week late, if side effect continue, or if you have any other concerns, contact your doctor or a family planning center for advice.

Protect yourself

Emergency contraception is best for emergencies only. It isn’t meant to be used as a regular form of contraception. If you don’t have a regular method of contraception, talk to a doctor or nurse to find out what forms of contraception might work best for you. You can also check out the ReachOut fact sheets on Condoms and Taking care of your sexual health. Even though you have used emergency contraception, you might still need to be tested for STIs.

Seek support from someone you can trust

Even if you regularly use contraceptives, accidents can happen. If you need emergency contraception or if you’re pregnant, you might want your partner, a friend or a parent to go with you to the clinic or pharmacy. These situations can be stressful, and it can be helpful to have someone supporting you through the experience. If you still feel anxious or depressed afterwards, it might help to see a counselor to talk through your feelings

If you’ve been sexually assaulted or raped, talk to your doctor, or visit a local clinic or hospital immediately for help.  You can also call the police department or the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 to speak anonymously with a trained crisis worker 24/7.

For more information

You can also visit the Planned Parenthood, the National Women’s Health Information Center and the Emergency Contraception website sponsored by the Office of Population Research at Princeton University in collaboration with the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals for further information on the topic.

Last reviewed Feb 27, 2013

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