Emergency Contraception: What you need to know

There has been a lot of talk about the morning after pill lately and the stigma associated with it can result in confusion and misinformation for many women. Just in time for Sexual Health Week (11-17 September 2017), we outline the essential things you need to know about the morning after pill with the help of leading Pharmacist, Deborah Evans:

 There is more than one method of emergency contraception available

There are two forms of emergency contraception that can be used after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. These are: the emergency IUD – also known as ‘the emergency coil’ and the morning after pill.

When it comes to the morning after pill – you have a choice of two different pills – containing either ulipristal acetate (ellaOne®) or levonorgestrel.

Deborah explains: “You should speak to a healthcare professional about the various options available and the differences in effectiveness to ensure you are able to make an informed decision based on what is most suitable for you. We are there to help you at what can be a very anxious time.”

You don’t have to take the pill the morning after

 “Although oral emergency contraceptive pills should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex, don’t panic if you haven’t been able to get it immediately after sex or the morning after.” ellaOne (ulipristal acetate) can be taken within five days (120 hours) of unprotected sex and levonorgestrel containing emergency contraceptive pills can be taken within 3 days (72 hours) of unprotected sex.

“Both pills work by preventing or delaying ovulation and must therefore be taken as soon as possible as they are not effective if ovulation has already taken place, so the sooner the better. The emergency IUD can be inserted up to five days after unprotected sex and although it is the most effective form of emergency contraception, it isn’t always the most practical as it must be fitted by a trained health care professional” Deborah adds.

The morning after pill is not hard to get

“The morning after pill is available from a variety of sources. This includes direct from the pharmacy without the need for a prescription. It is also possible to get it from your GP, family planning clinic, and walk-in centre or out of hours service.”

“Popping into a pharmacy to speak directly to someone without an appointment may be the quickest way to access emergency contraception advice and support; however, research reveals that only 7% of women are aware that it is possible to order the morning after pill online.”

All you have to do is complete a selection of health related questions on the pharmacy website to ensure the medication is appropriate for you. After the answers have been checked you can arrange delivery or collection from pharmacy. The ellaOne website has a selection of reputable online pharmacies offering this service.

“You can also get the emergency contraceptive pill in advance so that you have a provision to hand in your medicine cabinet. This means you can take it as soon as possible should you ever need to in the future, however if anything has changed in your general health or you are taking any new medicines, then do ask for some advice from your pharmacist before taking it” says Deborah.

Using the morning after pill does NOT make it hard to become pregnant in the future

 Deborah explains: “There is no evidence to suggest that using the morning after pill will make it difficult for you to become pregnant in the future and it has no known effect on fertility. It will not protect you from possible pregnancy if you have unprotected sex again several days after taking it.  If you want to have sex after using the morning after pill, use a barrier method (like a condom) until your next period even if you use regular contraception. If you do not have a regular contraception method in place, then have a conversation about the options available with your healthcare professional.”

The morning after pill does NOT cause a mini abortion or ‘emergency period’

“The morning after pill does not cause an abortion or emergency period,” says Deborah. “It works by delaying or inhibiting egg release. This means that the sperm waiting in the fallopian tubes will be unable to meet an egg and fertilise it. This is similar to regular contraceptive pills, which also work by preventing egg release.”

Hormones in the pill are not harmful for the majority of women

 The morning after pill is specifically designed for emergency use and is generally well tolerated although there may be some people who should not take it, so always speak to a healthcare professional about suitability. Hormones found in the morning after pill may alter your current cycle which means your period may come early or be delayed and will appear heavy or lighter than normal. Following this, your cycle should return to its normal pattern” Deborah explains.

Few women have side effects after taking it

 As with most medicine, some people will experience side effects after using the morning after pill, although not everyone gets them.

Deborah notes: “The most common side effects are headaches, nausea, tummy pain and painful periods. Women sometimes experience delayed periods and if this happens, you should take a pregnancy test or speak to a healthcare professional. If you become ill (and vomit) within the first three hours after taking the morning after pill, you will need to go back to the pharmacy and take another one immediately.”

Ovulation is not easily predicted so it’s not safe to assume you can pinpoint when you are highest risk of becoming pregnant

“I frequently hear this assumption from women. The unpredictability of ovulation together with the length of time sperm can be around to fertilse an egg, means that unplanned pregnancy may occur if you have unprotected sex at any time during your cycle. There is no safe window where you can have unprotected sex and be certain you will not become pregnant.”