Oops! Everything You Need To Know About Emergency Contraception

As women and girls living in the 21st century, we are incredibly lucky to have access to a myriad of birth control options that help us choose if and when we want to become pregnant. One of those options has become a lot more common and popular in the last few years: emergency contraception, sometimes called the “morning after pill.”

Below, we’ve answered quite a few common questions about emergency contraception. Like, is using the morning after pill or Plan B similar to having an abortion? Does it make you slutty? Do you need to tell your parents if you take it? The quick answers: Nope, no, and nope again! If you’d like even more information on emergency contraception, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about your options. A quick read through this will ensure you won’t be scrambling for answers if you do ever find yourself in a morning after situation!

What is emergency contraception?

You’ve probably heard it called “the morning after pill,” meaning that you can use it the morning after you have sex. Emergency contraception is a pill that contains a very high dose of hormones, intended to prevent pregnancy. Dr. Justine Marie Shuey, a board-certified sexologist and sexuality educator, explains it like this:

“Emergency contraceptive, also known as the ‘morning after pill’ is essentially a high dose of hormonal contraceptives (the same hormones found in birth control pills in a higher dose) used when another birth control method fails or was not used in order to prevent a pregnancy. It works by flooding the body with a high dose of hormones that prohibits ovulation or the ovary releasing an ovum or egg, the cell from a women’s body needed for pregnancy to occur. Thus, it prevents pregnancy.”

Emergency contraception must be taken within 72-120 hours (three to five days) to be effective.

How does emergency contraception work?

Basically, emergency contraception prevents pregnancy by preventing ovulation, or the release of an egg from your ovaries. If no egg has been released, no egg can be fertilized by any sperm that might be your body. But WebMD also says that:

“The pills also may stop sperm from fertilizing the egg. They also may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. If you’re already pregnant, most emergency contraception pills will have no effect.”

Here’s a interesting visual explanation of exactly what is going on in someone’s body when they take emergency contraception:

What are types of emergency contraception?

Although most people know about Plan B, which is also the easiest pill to purchase there are actually more than a few options for emergency contraception. Stephanie Tillman, a certified nurse-midwife who provides gynecological care to women of all ages in Chicago, Illinois, explains: “Currently there are two types of emergency contraception: pills and the Paragard intrauterine device (IUD). Each works within 5 days of unprotected intercourse, though all the pill options work best when taken as soon as possible. Depending on your age, you can get pill options at the pharmacy. The IUD is equally effective from the first day up until the fifth day after sex, so often more effective than pills, though requires a visit to a healthcare provider to use.”

The option of having an IUD inserted after unprotected sex might be a little more complicated on terms of making a doctor’s appointment and affording the IUD itself, but a copper IUD can prevent pregnancy for up to ten years, so it’s a great long-term option.

But let’s talk about the pills! Here’s the lowdown:

  • Plan B: This pill is the most common emergency contraceptive in the United States. It contains levonorgestrel and should be taken within 72 hours. It is most effective for women 165 lbs and under, regardless of height. If you have other questions about Plan B, visit PlanBOneStep.com.
  • NextChoice One Dose: This is the generic form of Plan B. It is available without a prescription for those 17 and older and with a prescription for those younger, but soon it will be available on the shelf.
  • My Way: This is another generic form of Plan B. It is available without a prescription for those 17 and older and with a prescription for those younger, but soon, it will be available on the shelf.
  • Levonorgestrel pills: These are other generic options, similar to Plan B.
  • ella: This pill is available by prescription only. ella can be more effective for women who are obese or overweight. It is also effective up to five days, or 120 hours, from unprotected sex, so it can be a good option if you were not able to get another form of EC directly following sex. You can buy ella online, should you wish to.

If you have any questions about which pill is right for you, ask a pharmacist and/or your doctor or midwife. And do your own research, too! You know your own body and lifestyle better than anyone else.

When do I need emergency contraception?

You need emergency contraception anytime you have had unprotected penis-in-vagina intercourse, especially if you know that the penis-having partner had an orgasm (or “came”) while the penis was in a vagina. Scenarios for this include:

  • the condom breaks or comes off
  • you have missed several days of birth control pills
  • you were late placing a contraceptive patch or ring, like the NuvaRing
  • you were late receiving a contraceptive injection, like DepoProvera
  • your IUD came out on its own
  • not using any birth control method

If you have been raped or experienced a sexual assault, emergency contraception can also be a very powerful option to prevent against an unwanted pregnancy. If you have experienced a rape or sexual assault, please seek help from law enforcement, your family, or other support services in your area. Here’s more information on how to deal with sexual assault.

How effective is emergency contraception?

Generally, emergency contraceptives are effective. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “…about 15 women out of 100 who use emergency contraception will become pregnant.” It works best the sooner you take it and generally has the highest level of effectiveness within 72 hours of intercourse, although it can work for up to five days after intercourse.

How do I use emergency contraception?

If you choose the pill option, you will take one pill within at least 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. Some brands of pills will also have you take one additional pill exactly 12 hours after you have taken the first one. Plan B One Step is the most popular pill out right now and if you use it, you will only have to take one pill.


This is what an IUD looks like. Photo: Shutterstock

If you choose an IUD, you will visit a care provider’s office and have them insert the IUD directly into your uterus.

Whatever option you choose, make sure you thoroughly read the directions and follow them exactly. If you have questions, you can direct them to a pharmacist or another healthcare provider.

Does emergency contraception have any side effects?

Yes. Emergency contraceptives have side affects that are similar to those of hormonal birth control, although perhaps a bit more intense (although they only last for a few days!). According to the Reproductive Health Access Project, side effects can include nausea, vomiting, breast tenderness and belly tenderness for one to two days. You might also have a bit of cramping, as if you were going to get your period. You might also have a little bit of spotting in your underwear or get your period a few days late or a few days early. Although the hormones in emergency contraceptive pills are generally safe, your body might still react to them a little bit.

If you know you have a big reaction to hormonal pills and think you might throw up after taking the pill, you can take an anti-nausea medication about an hour before you take the pill. A pharmacist should be able to recommend one to you, although the strongest ones are sometimes not available over the counter.

Stephanie Tillman says, “If you vomit within two hours of taking EC pills, consult with a healthcare provider or pharmacist to decide if you should repeat the pills. If you vomit after two hours, there is not concern that the hormones will not work, so you can be confident the EC was taken correctly.”

Is there anyone who shouldn’t use emergency contraception?

You should not use emergency contraception if you are already pregnant or if you are allergic to levonorgestrel or other hormones commonly used in birth control pills.

Recently, there has been some new information about the effectiveness of emergency contraceptive pills for women who are obese or overweight. If you have a higher BMI (body mass index) there is a chance that some forms of emergency contraceptive pills can be less effective for you. In that case, the pill ella, mentioned above, might be a good option for you.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions about whether or not you are a good candidate to use Plan B or other common forms of emergency contraceptive pills. The vast majority of women can use these pills with a high level of effectiveness and without any adverse affects.

Is using emergency contraception the same as having an abortion?

Nope, not even a little bit. Abortion terminates a pregnancy that has already happened (an egg that has already been fertilized and implanted into the uterus). Emergency contraception simply prevents that egg from ever meeting with sperm that could fertilize it. Although lots of people who are against emergency contraception say it’s similar to having an abortion, it is not. Midwife Stephanie Tillman sums it up well:

“Emergency contraception is a form of birth control, meaning a way to prevent pregnancy. If a pregnancy is already in place, emergency contraception will not work and it will not disrupt that pregnancy. To only way to stop a pregnancy already in place is to have an abortion, which either involves very different medications than emergency contraception or having a brief procedure in a healthcare provider’s office. An abortion only enters the conversation around emergency contraception if using EC fails to prevent a a pregnancy. So, these are two separate conversations. Neither pills or the IUD cause abortions.”

Does emergency contraception protect against STDs?

No. Emergency contraception (and birth control pills, too, for that matter) only protect against pregnancy, not sexually-transmitted diseases. The only birth control methods that also protect against STDs are condoms, both the male and female kinds. If you have had unprotected sex and are concerned you might have gotten an STD, it’s a good idea to get tested as soon as you can. Even if you don’t have an STD, it’s great to have the peace of mind, you know? You can get tested at the health center at your college or university, at your local Planned Parenthood clinic, or at your doctor’s office.

Do I need emergency contraception if I used condoms or birth control pills?

If the condom did not break or come off, no, you don’t need to use emergency contraception. If you have been taking your birth controls regularly and as directed, then no, you won’t need emergency contraception.

But if you have missed two or more birth control pills or placed your contraceptive ring or patch late, your risk for pregnancy goes up. If the condom you were using broke or came off during intercourse, there is a chance that you could be become pregnant. If you use condoms as your primary form of birth control, some doctors suggest having a few packs of Plan B or another pill on hand to use immediately if a condom breaks or comes off.

Regardless, if you feel unsure about whether or not the birth control method you used worked, emergency contraceptives are always an option. Seriously, don’t feel like you’re worrying too much if you feel safer taking an EC after having sex. You should do whatever will make you feel safe, secure and in control of your sexual health.

Can I use emergency contraception as my regular method of birth control?

I hate to say it, but you really shouldn’t. While emergency contraception is an amazing option to have during an emergency, it’s not designed to be used regularly. In fact, Plan B and pills like it are actually less effective when used as regular birth control. That’s why it’s called Plan B, after all! It’s a backup, a safety net, an awesome tool to use during “pull this cord in case of emergency” type of situation. It should not be used as a go-to method of birth control. For more information on why Plan B isn’t a good form of regular birth control, check this video out.

If you want, you can keep a few packs of Plan B or other pills on hand to use if you happen to get into a situation where you might need them. But relying on them for regular birth control is definitely not a good idea. If you’d like to figure out what the best birth control option is for you, I really like the website Method Match. You can compare and contrast different options.

How do I get emergency contraception?

During the last few years, most forms of emergency contraception have become available without a prescription! This means that you do not need to visit a doctor or other care provider and have them prescribe it to you.

Plan B, the most common brand of emergency contraception is available at the pharmacy. It should be available in the birth control or family planning aisle, but some pharmacists still keep it behind the counter because of the risk of it being stolen. You can also get emergency contraception at your local sexual health clinic or branch of Planned Parenthood. Generic forms of emergency contraceptives, like the ones discussed above, are also available at pharmacies.

Jen Wolfe, a pharmacist and pharmacy consultant, says that some pharmacies will only carry Plan B, “because it is the only EC pill available to everyone without a prescription.” So, there is a chance that you may find it difficult to find a generic brand or other brand of EC.

As mentioned before, ella is the form of EC that is only available by prescription, so you must see a doctor or other healthcare provider before you are able to get it.

Some schools, including a few in New York City, even provide emergency contraception to students who might need it.

Can I buy emergency contraception by myself?

According to federal law, if you are over 17, you can buy any kind of over-the-counter contraception, including Plan B and generic options. If you are under 15, you can only buy Plan B One Step. You will be asked to show your identification as proof of age. The laws on emergency contraception are subject to change, so if you have any questions, just do a little research or ask the pharmacist. He or she will be up to date on any laws that have to do with EC.

If you don’t want to buy it yourself, you can always ask a trusted friend or family member (like an older sister, a cousin or your mom) to buy it for you. You can also, in some circumstances, buy ella and Plan B online. But if you are at all able to get it in person, that’s probably a better bet, especially since it is a time-sensitive medication. You don’t want to take the risk of your emergency contraceptive getting lost in the mail!

We have a funny post called “10 thoughts you’ll have while buying Plan B,” so if you want to commiserate about a Plan B-buying experience over a few hilarious GIFs, take a look.

How much does emergency contraception cost?

Emergency contraceptive pills usually cost between $35-70. Plan B ranges from $40-$50 and generic versions are a little cheaper, from $35-45. The cost for insertion of an IUD can range. Sometimes it is covered by your insurance, if you have it, and sometimes it isn’t. You will need to check with your care provider to see what your options for payment might be.

Can males or transgendered people buy emergency contraception?

Yes! Anyone over the age of 15 can buy emergency contraception. A person’s gender has no bearing on whether or not they can buy it.

Do I have to go to a doctor if I need emergency contraception?

The quick answer? No, you don’t! Plan B and several of its generics versions are available over-the counter, meaning in your local pharmacy. You can walk in, go up to the pharmacy counter and ask for emergency contraception without feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

Of course, you can still go to a doctor to get emergency contraception if you feel more comfortable than going to the pharmacy or your local drugstore. In addition, some types of emergency contraception, like the pill ella, do require a prescription from a doctor. And if you wanted to use an IUD as a form of EC, you’d have to visit a doctor to have it inserted into your uterus.

How do I ask my parents to help me get emergency contraception?

As a rule of thumb, you do NOT have to ask your parents to help you get emergency contraception, not unless you want to. I think it’s really terrific that the law makes it possible for people to get emergency contraceptive without parental consent, because it is often a touchy and sensitive subject for a sexually-active person to broach with their parents.

But if you need a ride to the pharmacy or the money to buy Plan B or another pill, you might have to ask your parents to help. Depending on whether or not your parents know that you are sexually active, this can be an awkward and/or painful conversation. My advice is to broach it carefully and respectfully and stress that you feel this is the best option for yourself and your sexual health. If your parent or family member has questions, you can point them to a resource on emergency contraception, like this one or The Emergency Contraception website. Hopefully, having an open conversation about your decision to use emergency contraception will be a good experience for your parents and you.

Even if you don’t need them to help you get it, you may also decide that you do want your parents or other caregivers to know that you need or used emergency contraception. So much of this decision is based on your own family dynamic and personal relationships. Do what feels right to you within the context of your situation.

If you do not feel safe at home or in your relationship with your family, please talk to a trusted adult about your concerns.

Should I tell my partner that I had to use emergency contraception?

It depends on you, your sex partner and the situation surrounding your sexual encounter. If you are in a committed relationship, it probably does make sense to tell your partner that you used Plan B or another form of emergency contraception. Your sex partner might even be able to help you get or pay for the emergency contraceptive. Dr. Anandi Narasimhan, a board-certified psychiatrist, suggests:

“It is good to have an open, honest communication with your partner, especially around this type of issue that concerns the both of you. It will also be beneficial emotional to have a partner’s support.”

But if you had more casual sex, maybe with someone you think you might not see or hang out with again, you might feel more comfortable keeping it to yourself. Either way, it is your decision about your own body.

That being said, if you don’t feel close enough to your partner to talk about EC, there’s a good chance you’re not close enough with him to have responsible sex. Be sure you’re comfortable in your sexual decisions and able to talk about the very serious consequences of sex with your partner before you do the deed. It’s never a fun (or sexy) conversation, but it is an important one.

Does needing emergency contraception make me slutty?

No! Slutty is a derogatory term meant to be used towards someone (usually a woman) who is considered sexually promiscuous. Needing to use the morning after pill does not make you sexually promiscuous in the least. Women of all ages, sizes, shapes and sexual experiences use emergency contraception, including people who may have only had sex one time, people who are married and more.

In fact, using the morning after pill can often be an empowering experience as a sexual person. After all, you are the one taking control of your own reproductive health. You are the only person who can judge what is right for your body and your sexual life.

Here’s vlogger Laci Green talking about Plan B and the sex lives of younger people:

Have you used emergency contraception? Was it a good experience for you? If you feel comfortable, please share in the comments! And if you have any other specific questions about emergency contraceptive methods, how they work, or how you can get them, let us know and we will answer do our best to answer ASAP.

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