Realizing that you are at risk for an unplanned pregnancy is a scary experience. The time leading up to your next period can be filled with anxiety and worry. Thankfully, emergency contraception, sometimes referred to as the morning after pill, dramatically reduces the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy — especially if taken shortly after unprotected sex.
How does the morning after pill work?
Emergency contraception helps prevent unplanned pregnancies. Reasons you might use emergency birth control include:
- If you recently had unprotected sex
- Your birth control method failed
- You missed taking your birth control pills
- You were sexually assaulted
Taking emergency contraception does not end pregnancy that has already occurred, but it can prevent it from occurring in the first place. Depending on where you are in your monthly cycle, it might prevent or delay ovulation, block sterilization, or stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
What choices are available for emergency contraceptive pills?
There are three types of emergency birth control pills available in the United States:
Progestin only: These pills contain only the hormone progestin. They are sold under the names Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, Take Action, My Way, and more. It’s available over-the-counter to anyone of any age.
Ulipristal acetate: Another option is a pill containing ulipristal acetate. It’s sold under the name “ella” in the United States and is available by prescription only.
Progestin plus estrogen: Combined hormonal pills contain both progestin and estrogen — these are the typical daily birth control pills you can get by prescription. Find out more about which brands can be used as emergency contraception, and how, here.
No matter which option you choose, it should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex. Plan B One-Step indicates it should be taken within 72 hours after sex; ella should be taken within 120 hours. But the sooner you take it, the better it works.
When will you get your next period?
You may experience some irregularities with your period after taking emergency contraception, but you should have a normal period within the following month, according to Princeton University’s website for emergency contraception.
When your period arrives may be related to when you took the emergency contraceptive pill. Generally, women started their periods a day earlier when they used emergency contraception more than two days before ovulation, and their periods were two days later than expected when they took the pills more than two days after ovulation, according to a study completed at Princeton University. Because taking the emergency contraceptive pill does not guarantee that you won’t get pregnant, you should take a pregnancy test if your period is more than a week late.
You may also notice some spotting after taking the medication and before your next period. You might notice that your first period is lighter or heavier than normal. This should resolve by the following month.
What are the side effects of emergency contraception?
The most common side effects, according to Princeton University, include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Breast tenderness
Around 20 percent of women experience vomiting after taking the morning after pill. If vomiting occurs within two hours of taking the medication, you should contact your doctor as it is possible that the medication was not absorbed and you will need an additional dose. If vomiting occurs within 1 hour of taking the emergency contraceptive pill, it is generally recommended that an anti-nausea medication be given and the emergency contraceptive pill be given again.
Eating small meals, using easily digestible foods, and avoiding dehydration can help, but often the nausea is unavoidable. Medications that help reduce nausea can be given either before nausea develops or to treat nausea. The nausea tends not to last very long, and most women feel better by the next day.
When to see a doctor
- If you vomit within two hours of taking the medication
- If your period is more than one week late
- If you experience severe abdominal pain
Are there non-pill options for emergency birth control?
Another form of emergency contraception is the copper intrauterine device (IUD). If inserted within five days of unprotected sex, it can prevent pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The added benefit is it will then provide up to 10 years of long-term birth control.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.