Emergency contraception – understanding your options

Emergency contraception is a method of birth control which can be used after unprotected sex or the failure of a regular birth control method.

Here you can find more information on some of the most common forms, how they work, their effectiveness and their suitability.

So, lets discuss emergency contraception and your options:

What is emergency contraception?

Unfortunately, no form of contraception is 100% effective and accidents or lapses in protection can result in the rise of unplanned pregnancy. Emergency contraception is a method of birth control which is used after unprotected sex or failure of a regular birth control method. It works by delaying or stopping ovulation to prevent pregnancy.

Although there are different types, you will often hear it referred to as ‘the morning after pill’ – used within five days or sooner if possible.

Types of emergency contraception

So, what are your different options?

If you or your partner feel you might be at risk of an unplanned pregnancy there are two common forms of emergency contraception:

  1. Emergency contraceptive pill: Also known as “the morning after pill” it contains synthetic hormones which stop or delay the release of the egg to prevent pregnancy. There are two common versions of the pill: Levenelle, which should be taken within 3 days of unprotected sex, and EllaOne, which should be taken within 5 days of unprotected sex.
  2. Copper intrauterine device: An IUD (intrauterine device) is typically a small device which is inserted into the womb (uterus) by a trained healthcare professional. It slowly releases copper to prevent implantation and it can be fitted up to 5 days after unprotected sex or up to day 19 of a regular 28 day cycle.


The effectiveness of emergency contraception is impacted by a number of factors. However, the sooner you take it, the more effective it is likely to be.

Things that affect emergency contraception’s ability to prevent pregnancy include the time passed since unprotected sex, the BMI of the person taking it and the method of emergency contraception used.

A 2017 review estimated that around 98-99% of people who take EllaOne after unprotected sex don’t get pregnant, and it is estimated that around 97.4-99.4% of those who take Levonelle avoid pregnancy.

The most effective form of emergency contraception is the IUD (coil) as it successful more than 99.9% of the time. This means that fewer than 1 in 1000 users will end up pregnant when using the device.

It should be noted that no method of emergency contraception is 100% effective and there is always a chance that a method will fail, resulting in a pregnancy.

Side effects

There are no serious or long-term side effects for any emergency contraceptive pill. But they may cause minor headaches, stomach pain, nausea (feeling sick) or changes to your next period.  It is important to take a pregnancy 3 weeks after unprotected sex to ensure the method of emergency contraception has been effective.

Neither of the contraceptive pill methods are intended for regular use and further unprotected sex should be avoided while the pill is working.

However, if you vomit within two to three hours of taking either of the pills you should seek medical advice. You may need to take another dose or have an IUD fitted instead.

The IUD can be removed after the risk of pregnancy has passed, or you can keep it in as your regular form of contraception. It can be used by most people and side effects are rare, but it can cause heavy and painful periods as well as increased cramping.

Other methods of contraception

Emergency contraception should not be used as a regular method of birth control. If you are sexually active, it is important to use a consistent method of contraception to avoid getting pregnant.

There is a variety of different methods of contraception which allow people to plan if and when they want to get pregnant:

  1. Condoms: Condoms are the only method of contraception which prevents both sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy. They work by catching the sperm and avoiding direct contact between genitals. It should be noted that male condoms are 98% effective and female condoms are 95% effective. If you need free condoms, we can help. Click here https://ec-card.org.uk/ to find out more about our eC-Card and how you can use it to get free condoms.
  2. Oral Contraception: The combined contraceptive tablet (the “pill”) is the most widely used method of contraception and is also one of the most effective. When taken correctly, the pill is successful over 99% of the time.
  3. Long-Acting Reversable Contraceptives (LARC): LARC is a long-lasting method of birth control which helps prevent against pregnancy after just one treatment. The most common types are the contraceptive injection, contraceptive implant, intrauterine system (IUS) and intrauterine device (IUD). For more information on LARC click here, https://suffolksexualhealthservice.org.uk/larc/

Unplanned pregnancy

What if you’ve had unprotected sex and end up with an unplanned pregnancy?

Unplanned pregnancies can be scary, especially when you are young. However, there is support out there to help you make the right choice for you.

These include:

  1. Have the baby: If you choose to continue with your pregnancy, antenatal classes are available to help you prepare for your baby’s birth. They are informative, fun and free on the NHS! They have a number of benefits including tips on how to look after and feed your baby, staying healthy during pregnancy and considerations for different arrangements for giving birth.
  2. Abortion: If you become unexpectedly pregnant you can decide to terminate the pregnancy. Abortions in England, Wales and Scotland can be carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy. As the pregnant person, the choice is yours and yours alone. However, you may wish to discuss it with those close to you or a trained pregnancy counsellor.
  3. Adoption: Another option is adoption. This is the act of giving up your child to another parent or family. For this process to work, both parents typically have to agree to allowing it to happen. Adoption usually happens shortly after birth and is easiest when the parent is yet to form a bond with the baby.

You can find more support and information on unplanned pregnancy in this blog: https://suffolksexualhealthservice.org.uk/unplanned-pregnancy-and-your-choices/

Accessing emergency contraception:

It’s easy to try and tackle a situation which requires emergency contraception by yourself, but there is support available.

Here at Suffolk Sexual Health Service, we can help with contraception, pregnancy tests and termination advice. Contact us on 0300 303 9982 or visit https://suffolksexualhealthservice.org.uk/contact/

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