How does emergency contraception work?
Pregnancy doesn’t happen right after you have sex — that’s why it’s possible to prevent pregnancy a few days after you do it. It’s all about timing.
Sperm can live inside your body for up to 6 days after sex, waiting for an egg to show up. If you ovulate during that time, the sperm can meet up with your egg and cause pregnancy. Morning-after pills work by temporarily stopping your ovary from releasing an egg. It’s kind of like pulling the emergency brake on ovulation. Where you’re at in your menstrual cycle and how soon you take morning-after pills can affect how well they prevent pregnancy. Morning-after pills won’t work if your body has already started ovulating.
This is why timing is so important, especially if you’re using Plan B and other levonorgestrel morning-after pills. (ella works closer to the time of ovulation than levonorgestrel morning-after pills like Plan B.) Most people don’t know exactly when they ovulate, so it’s best to use emergency contraception as soon as possible — no matter where you are in your menstrual cycle or whether or not you think you’re about to ovulate.
The morning-after pill is NOT the same thing as the abortion pill (also called medication abortion or RU-486). The morning-after pill doesn’t cause an abortion. It won’t work if you’re already pregnant, and it won’t harm an existing pregnancy. Emergency contraception (including the IUD) is birth control, not abortion. It doesn’t end a pregnancy — it prevents one
What kinds of emergency contraception are there?
There are 2 ways to prevent pregnancy after you have unprotected sex:
Option 1: Get a ParaGard IUD within 120 hours (5 days) after having unprotected sex. This is the most effective type of emergency contraception.
Option 2: Take an emergency contraceptive pill (AKA the morning-after pill) within 120 hours (5 days) after having unprotected sex. There are 2 types of morning-after pills:
- A pill with ulipristal acetate. There’s only one brand, called Ella. You need a prescription from a nurse or doctor to get Ella emergency contraception, but you can get a fast medical consultation and prescription with next-day delivery online. Ella is the most effective type of morning-after pill. You can take Ella up to 120 hours (5 days) after unprotected sex, and it works just as well on day 5 as it does on day 1. If you’ve used the birth control pill, patch, or ring within the last 5 days, Ella might not work as well as other morning after pills (like Plan B).
- A pill with levonorgestrel. Brand names include: Plan B One Step, Next Choice One Dose, Take Action, My Way, AfterPill, and others. You can buy these morning-after pills over the counter without a prescription in most drugstores and pharmacies.
These types of morning-after pills work best when you take them within 72 hours (3 days) after unprotected sex, but you can take them up to 5 days after. The sooner you take them, the better they work.
You can use emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy if:
- you didn’t use a condom or other birth control method when you had vaginal sex
- you messed up your regular birth control (forgot to take your birth control pills, change your patch or ring, or get your shot on time) and had vaginal sex
- your condom broke or slipped off after ejaculation (cumming)
- your partner didn’t pull out in time
- you were forced to have unprotected vaginal sex
If you use emergency contraception correctly after you have unprotected sex, it makes it much less likely that you’ll get pregnant. But don’t use it regularly as your only protection from pregnancy, because it’s not as effective as regular, non-emergency birth control methods (like the IUD, pill, or condoms).
How many times can I use emergency contraception?
Taking the morning-after pill whenever you need to won’t hurt you. But it’s not a good idea to use the morning-after pill as your regular, go-to method of birth control. This is because:
The morning-after pill doesn’t prevent pregnancy as well as other forms of birth control like the IUD, implant, pill, shot, or ring.
Taking the morning-after pill over and over again is more expensive than being on a regular method of birth control.
Morning-after pill side effects are temporary and harmless, but annoying (like bleeding between periods or nausea).
So it’s totally safe to take the morning-after pill as many times as you need to — it’s just not the best way to prevent unintended pregnancies long-term. Birth control that you use before or during sex (like the IUD, implant, pill, condoms, etc.) is way more effective, affordable and convenient.