Emergency Contraception: Types, Effectiveness, Side Effects

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Emergency Contraception: Types, Effectiveness, Side Effects

More than 3 million unintended pregnancies occur each year in the United Sates.  Preventing unintended pregnancies can impact the number of abortions performed.  The use of emergency contraception, taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 89 percent.

While “emergency contraception” is an often-heard phrase, many women often have questions about it, including how emergency contraception works, what options are available, and what side effects a woman may have. There is a general lack of knowledge among many women about emergency contraception and many misconceptions about it. The most common emergency contraception available in the United States is a type of progestin, levonorgestrel, a hormone commonly used in birth control pills for more than 35 years.  It should be used as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse, but it can be effective for up to 5 days after the act.  It is taken either as a single 150 mg dose or as two 75 mg doses 12 hours apart.  Emergency contraceptive pills are marketed under the names Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, Next Choice, and Levonorgestrel Tablets.

Side effects of the emergency contraception pill are generally mild and do not require medical attention.  The most common side effects include headache, nausea, fatigue, breast tenderness, dizziness or lightheadedness or a change in menstrual flow.  Emergency contraception does not contain estrogen.

Emergency contraception, or “the morning after pill,” does not cause an abortion. It works by delaying or preventing ovulation.  It cannot prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. If a pregnancy were to occur despite a woman taking emergency contraception, levonorgestrel has not been found to cause birth defects.

Emergency contraception is available over-the-counter at pharmacies to women aged 17 and older with a government-issued ID.  It is often sold under the name “Plan B.”  Not all pharmacies carry it, however.  A Copper IUD (ParaGard) inserted within 5 days of unprotected intercourse is also very effective form of emergency contraception.  However, this requires an appointment for insertion whereas the morning after pill does not necessitate a visit to a doctor’s office or clinic.

We at Boulder Gynecology offer emergency contraception– no questions asked– to all our patients.  We believe it is a good idea to have the medication or a prescription of it on hand because you can never predict when you might need it.  Having it available when the condom breaks on that weekend night can provide peace of mind.  If we do not bring up the topic, feel free to ask us about it anytime you are in the office.


About the Author:

Dr. Lepine earned her medical degree from the University of California at San Diego and completed her residency at the same institution in 1994. After residency, she pursued her interests in public health and international medicine through a fellowship in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Education and advocacy for women, particularly the under-served, has always been at the heart of her work. She has participated in both public health and clinical work in the developing world, including Rwanda, Kenya, Mexico, Bangladesh, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

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