HEALTH & WELLNESS
Emergency Contraception: What You Need to Know
Common forms of prophylactics are generally highly effective when used correctly. However, it is possible for condoms to break, diaphragms to slip out of position, and to forget about a hormonal birth control shot appointment. If something like this happens, emergency contraceptives are orally administered pills or specialized IUD which cause a chemical shift in the body so that pregnancy is prevented.
While it should only be used as a backup to your normal contraceptives, emergency birth control is a highly effective method to prevent pregnancy if you suspect that your birth control failed or you engaged in unprotected sex.
How Does It Work?
To understand this answer, you must first realize that pregnancy is not an instantaneous process. In order to become pregnant, you need to have released an egg which becomes fertilized by sperm. On average this can take two to three days. However, since sperm can survive in a woman’s body for up to six days and a woman may release an egg hours to days after having sex, the process can take longer.
Following this, the fertilized egg, called a zygote, forms once a sperm penetrates and combines its genetic material with the egg which can last a day. Once this occurs the zygote traverses the Fallopian tube over the next few days it, most likely, will implant into the uterine wall and begins maturation.
By releasing hormones into the body, emergency birth control prevents ovulation from occurring, and thus zygote formation. Please keep in mind, that the emergency contraception we’re discussing here is not the same as the abortion pill, which halts pregnancy once a zygote has been formed. If an egg has already been released or if a zygote has formed, emergency contraception will not work.
Since emergency contraceptives specifically prevent ovulation, they are only effective within a certain time frame after you’ve had sex, being five maximum days after having coitus.
What Types Are There and What Is the Effectiveness of Emergency Contraception?
The most common forms of emergency contraceptives are pills which use one of two types of chemicals: levonorgestrel or ulipristal acetate. Commonly called the morning after pill, the former type can be purchased over-the-counter without a prescription and is available at most major pharmacies. Levonorgestrel-based pills are most effective when taken three days after having sex and are known by multiple brand names.
While this form of emergency contraception is effective, implants, hormonal shots, the vaginal ring, and other forms of emergency birth control are better methods of birth control, particularly in certain circumstances.
Ulipristal-based emergency contraceptives are only available in the form of one brand called ella and is the most effective form of oral emergency birth control available since it is just as effective between one to five days after having intercourse. However, unlike other methods of emergency birth control, this uses a chemical compound to block certain hormones which lead to pregnancy. Further, this brand does require a doctor’s prescription.
The third form of emergency birth control is a copper-based IUD called ParaGard and is highly effective as well. While it can prevent pregnancy for a decade, in addition to being an emergency form of birth control, this will require a physician to properly insert or removed.
The type of emergency contraceptive which is best for you is going to depend on a number of factors including your body mass index, if you’re using another form of birth control, if you are breastfeeding, among others. If you aren’t sure which emergency birth control you should use or consider as a backup, we recommend consulting your physician to discuss which options are best for you.
Are There Side Effects to Using Emergency Contraception?
To be clear, emergency birth control has been used for decades without any reports of death or serious side effects. That said, depending on the type of emergency birth control that you use, there may be some mild adverse effects you may experience.
These effects can include nausea, vomiting, headaches and some tenderness of the breast which can last for a couple of days. In the case of teenage girls, the menstrual cycle may be irregular after ingesting an emergency contraceptive. However, if you do not experience side effects, that does not mean that your birth control is not working.
While it can be safe to use the morning after pill as a regular form of birth control, it doesn’t prevent STI transmission and isn’t an ideal substitute to normal birth control, since repeated use may lead to persistent nausea or bleeding between menstrual cycles.
It’s also important to remember that you should not use two or more forms of emergency birth control at the same time or with a week of each other. In addition to not being doubly effective, they may fail entirely and cause you to become sick.