What is emergency contraception (EC)? (also referred to as the "morning after pill")

Emergency contraception is a type of birth control that can be taken after unprotected sex.  It can be used after a condom breaks, after a sexual assault, or any time a woman is unprepared and has unprotected sex. EC pills must be taken within 5 days (120 hours) of unprotected sex, but it is most effective when taken within 24 hours.  The sooner you take it, the better it works.  If you are already pregnant, it will not end your pregnancy and Next Choice®/Plan B One-Step® will not harm your baby.  You should have EC on hand in case you need it.

How is EC used?
Emergency contraception consists of several options. 

Some names you may have heard of are:

  • Next Choice® contains two tablets of the progestin only hormone levonorgestrel (commonly used in the birth control pill) to prevent the ovary from releasing an egg. These pills can be taken together or each pill can be taken 12 hours apart.  They can be taken up to 5 days (120 hours) after the unprotected sex occurred, but it works best (about 90%) when it is taken within 24 hours of the unprotected sex. Next Choice® is available without a prescription for women 17 or older and with a prescription for girls under 17. It can be used more than once in a menstrual cycle, but it is meant to be used only in emergencies. Regular correct and consistent use of a birth control method is much more effective and is encouraged. 
  • Plan B One-Step® is the same as Next Choice®, but both pills are combined into one tablet (one pill is double the dose of Next Choice®) of the hormone levonorgestrel. Plan B One-Step® is available without a prescription for women 17 or older and with a prescription for girls under 17.
  • ella® contains one tablet of ulipristal acetate and is the most effective.  It can be taken up to 5 days (120 hours) after unprotected sex. It works by preventing or delaying the release of the egg from the ovary. It can only be taken once in a menstrual cycle. Everyone must have a prescription to get this method of EC.
  • ParaGard® the copper Intrauterine Device, can be inserted in the clinic by your health care provider. It must be inserted within 5 days (120 hours) of having unprotected sex to prevent a pregnancy. This is about 99% effective and once it is inserted, it can then be used for long acting birth control (for up to 12 years).

How does EC work?
Emergency contraception slows or stops the ovary from releasing an egg (ovulation), and changes the lining of the uterus, and the mucus in a woman's cervix (the opening to the uterus). In other words, they prevent a pregnancy from occurring.

Emergency contraception is not abortion. A pregnancy test can be done to make sure you are not already pregnant before you take EC.  If a woman is already pregnant, EC will not work, and it will not end a pregnancy. Plan B One-Step® and Next Choice® will not harm your baby if taken by mistake.
Is EC the same as RU486?
NO. Emergency contraception is not the abortion pill (RU486/mifeprex). Emergency contraception is used to prevent a pregnancy while the abortion pill is used to end a pregnancy.

How effective is Emergency Contraception?
EC can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 95%. The earlier it is taken after unprotected sex, the more effective it will be. The closer a woman is to releasing an egg at the time of unprotected sex, the less likely the method will succeed.

What are some of the possible side effects?
Side effects from hormone ECs may include nausea, vomiting, breast tenderness, fatigue, irregular vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain, headaches and dizziness may also occur. EC will usually change the amount, length, and timing of your next menstrual period.

Important things to know about emergency contraception:
Emergency contraception does not prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.  This method is for "emergency" use only. Regular use of a contraceptive method is much more effective than EC at preventing a pregnancy.  Emergency contraception can fail. You should do a pregnancy test if your period does not come within three weeks of taking the pills.