Emergency contraception
Emergency contraception

A woman can use emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex, or if a method of contraception has failed, for example a condom has split or you've missed a pill.

There are two methods of emergency contraception:

  • the copper intrauterine device (IUD).
  • the emergency contraceptive pill (the morning-after pill)

Both of these methods are very effective at preventing pregnancy if they are used soon after unprotected sex.  The most effective way of minimising your chance of becoming pregnant in this situation is to have an “IUD” or intra-uterine device fitted.

Be aware however that emergency contraception does not protect against sexually transmitted infections.

Copper intrauterine device (IUD)  

The copper intrauterine device (IUD) is a small, plastic and copper device that can be fitted into your  womb by a doctor or nurse within five days of having unprotected sex or sometimes even longer depending on the length of your normal menstrual cycle.

The IUD stops sperm from reaching an egg and fertilising it. It is the most effective method of emergency contraception and prevents up to 99% of pregnancies. It’s more effective at preventing pregnancy than the emergency pill, and it does not interact with any other medication.

You can also choose to have the IUD left in as an ongoing method of contraception.

Most women can use the IUD for emergency contraception. It is particularly suitable if:

  • you cannot or do not want to take hormones
  • you are taking certain medication, such as epilepsy drugs
  • you want to use the IUD as an ongoing method of contraception

See the intrauterine device (IUD) topic for further information.

Emergency contraceptive pill

There are two types of emergency contraceptive pill:

  • Levonelle is the most commonly used. It can be taken up to three days (72 hours) after having unprotected sex, and is available free of charge on prescription or can be bought from your local pharmacy if you are over 16.
  • ellaOne is a type of emergency contraceptive pill that can be taken up to five days (120 hours) after having unprotected sex.

The effectiveness of the emergency contraceptive pill decreases over time.

A trial undertaken by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicated that levonorgestrel (the drug in Levonelle) prevented:

  • 95% of expected pregnancies when taken within 24 hours of sex
  • 85% if taken within 25–48 hours
  • 58% if taken within 49–72 hours

More recent studies suggest that the prevention rate might be lower, but still substantial.

A study published in 2010 showed that of 1,696 women who received the emergency pill within 72 hours of sex, 37 became pregnant (1,659 did not). Of 203 women who took the emergency pill between 72 and 120 hours after unprotected sex, there were three pregnancies. 

Most women can use the emergency contraceptive pill, including women who are breastfeeding and those who cannot usually use hormonal contraception (such as the combined pill or contraceptive patch).

The emergency contraceptive pill should not be  used as a regular method of contraception.

For more information, see the A-Z topic on the emergency contraceptive pill.

How likely am I to become pregnant?

If 1000 women have sex without a condom and are not using contraception:

  • 80 will become pregnant if do not access any emergency contraception
  • 10 will become pregnant if Levonelle is used as Emergency contraception
  • 5  will become pregnant if ellaOne is used as Emergency contraception
  • Only 1 will become pregnant if the Emergency IUD is used

Had unprotected sex?

The IUD can be fitted at:

  • GP surgeries
  • contraception/sexual health clinics
  • some young persons’ clinics and Brook advisory centres

Acting quickly and using emergency contraception after unprotected sex will usually prevent a pregnancy. The emergency contraceptive pill is available free from:

  • your GP
  • any contraception/sexual health clinics (formerly known as family planning clinics)
  • some pharmacies
  • any genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or sexual health clinic
  • any young persons' clinic or Brook Advisory Centre
  • some hospital accident and emergency (A&E) departments

 The emergency contraceptive pill can also be bought from pharmacies and some private clinics. It costs around £25.

Find sexual health services in your area.

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At a glance: facts about emergency contraception:

  • Both types of emergency contraception are effective at preventing pregnancy if they are used soon after unprotected sex. Less than 1% of women who use the IUD get pregnant, whereas pregnancies after the emergency contraceptive pill are not as rare. It’s thought that ellaOne is more effective than Levonelle.
  • The sooner you take Levonelle or ellaOne, the more effective it will be.
  • Levonelle or ellaOne can make you feel sick, dizzy or tired, or give you a headache, tender breasts or abdominal pain.
  • Levonelle or ellaOne can make your period earlier or later than usual.
  • If you’re sick (vomit) within two hours of taking Levonelle, or three hours of taking ellaOne, seek medical advice as you will need to take another dose or have an IUD fitted.
  • If you use the IUD as emergency contraception, it can be left in as your regular contraceptive method.
  • If you use the IUD as a regular method of contraception, it can make your periods longer, heavier or more painful.
  • You may feel some discomfort when the IUD is put in – painkillers can help to relieve this.
  • There are no serious side effects of using emergency contraception.
  • Emergency contraception does not cause an abortion.
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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website nhs.uk
Last Updated: 27/04/2016 14:16:37