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Emergency contraception is only for an emergency and not intended to replace the use of a regular contraceptive choice.
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Accidents happen - condoms break, contraceptive pills can be missed and diaphragms slip.
If you think your contraception has failed, or if you have had sex without using contraception, don't panic. There are two main types of emergency contraception available: the emergency contraceptive pill (detailed below) and the intrauterine device (IUD).
Emergency contraceptive pill - what is it?
There are two types of emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes also referred to as the ‘morning after pill’). One is an oral tablet containing progestogen, a hormone that is similar to the natural progesterone women produce in their ovaries. It should be taken within 72 hours (3 days) of having unprotected sex and works by delaying or stopping an egg being released (ovulation). It may also stop a fertilised egg settling in the womb (implanting).
The other is a pill containing the active ingredient ulipristal acetate and can be taken up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected sex. It is thought to work by preventing ovulation and fertilisation and also by altering the lining of the womb, depending on which stage of the menstrual cycle the woman is at.
Where can I get the emergency contraceptive pill?
The emergency contraceptive pill is available free from your GP or family planning clinic. It can also be bought from some pharmacies if the woman meets all the criteria for having the medication. Some Accident and Emergency departments also supply emergency contraception.
It is not possible to obtain the emergency contraceptive pill on behalf of someone else. The healthcare professional will need to ask specific questions to ensure that it is appropriate for the woman to take.
How effective is it?
Emergency contraceptive pills are effective when taken properly and as advised by your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.
Is the emergency contraceptive pill suitable for all women?
Most women are able to take the emergency contraception pill. It should not be taken if the woman is allergic to any of the ingredients of the emergency contraception pill, or if the woman is pregnant. As always, it is important to tell your healthcare professional if you are taking any prescribed medicines at the same time or if you have any specific illnesses.
As with all medicines side effects can occur but not all women will experience side-effects.
Some women may feel sick, dizzy or tired, or get headaches, breast tenderness or abdominal pain. The emergency contraceptive pill may also disrupt your next period. If your period is delayed by more than 5 days or if abnormal bleeding occurs at the expected date of the next period after taking the emergency contraception pill, you should see your doctor or nurse to exclude pregnancy as a cause.
If you are sick within three hours of taking the emergency contraception pill it may not have had time to be absorbed into your body and might not work. If this is the case you may need to take another pill – you should seek medical advice from a healthcare professional immediately.
How will the emergency contraceptive pill affect my next period?
Your next period may come a few days early or late. Some women also experience irregular bleeding between taking the emergency pill and their next period.If your next 'period' is delayed by more than 5 days, you should contact your doctor or nurse to exclude pregnancy as a reason for this.
How many times can I use the emergency contraceptive pill?
Emergency contraception should be reserved for emergencies only and not replace your usual method of contraception. This is because emergency contraception is not as effective as many other contraceptive methods.
Can the emergency contraceptive pill fail?
In some women it fails even though the pill was taken properly, resulting in pregnancy. There is a greater risk of falling pregnant if you:
Delay taking the emergency pill
Vomit within three hours of taking the pill
Have had unprotected sex at another time, either since your last period or since taking the emergency pill (the emergency contraceptive pill will not protect you from pregnancy if you have further unprotected sex)
An alternative type of emergency contraception to the emergency contraceptive pill is the Intrauterine Device (IUD) and more information can be found here.
Remember: Contact your doctor or nurse if you have any concerns or are worried / unsure about anything to do with your contraception.
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