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Emergency contraception (the morning after pill)

Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex.  

There are two types (both are for women). The morning after pill can prevent pregnancy if you take it within 3-5 days. The sooner you take it, the more effective it will be. An IUD (a coil that goes into the womb) can also be used as emergency contraception. But it must be fitted within five days of unprotected sex. 

But emergency contraceptive pills or an IUD will not protect you or your partner from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. If you have had unprotected sex, it’s a good idea to get tested.  

What is emergency contraception?

You can take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, or if something has gone wrong with your usual contraception method (for example a condom broke or you forgot to take your contraceptive pill).  

Although there is no limit to the number of times you can take the morning after pill, you should not use emergency contraception regularly, there are much better types of contraception that are designed for regular use.  

The most common type is an emergency contraceptive pill. 

You can also use a copper IUD as emergency contraception. This is a t-shaped coil that goes into the womb.  

How long after unprotected sex can I use emergency contraception?

The emergency contraceptive pill must be taken within 3-5 days of unprotected sex, depending on the type of pill. The sooner you take it after having unprotected sex the more effective it is. 

For the copper IUD to work as emergency contraception it must be fitted within five days of unprotected sex.  

Where do I get emergency contraception?

You can buy emergency contraceptive pills from pharmacists. The cost of the morning after pill will depend on where you live. Or you can get them from sexual health clinics and healthcare professionals.  

If you decide to use an IUD for emergency contraception it has to be fitted by a trained healthcare professional within five days of unprotected sex. 

How does the morning after pill work?

It contains hormones that temporarily stop or delay the release of an egg (ovulation), which prevents pregnancy.  

Although they aren't designed as regular birth control, it is safe to use the morning after pill more than once in a menstrual cycle if you need to. But there has to be at least a five-day gap or both pills might not work.  

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using emergency contraception?

Advantages include: 

  • the morning after pill is safe to take and does not have any serious side effects 

  • some emergency contraceptive pills are safe to take while breastfeeding and you can take them after giving birth, speak to a healthcare professional about your options 

  • if you use the IUD as emergency contraception, you can leave it in and use it as your regular contraceptive method if you want to 

  • the IUD is safe to use and can be removed if you have side effects 

  • you can get an IUD fitted four weeks after giving birth, and it’s safe to use if you’re breastfeeding.  

Disadvantages include: 

  • emergency contraception does not protect you or your partner from STIs, including HIV – only condoms prevent pregnancy and STIs 

  • the morning after pill won’t work if you take it too late or if you are ovulating 

  • can cause mild side effects, including headaches, stomach ache and vomiting 

  • can make your next period early or late, and more heavy and painful 

  • cannot be taken if you have allergies, severe asthma, are on some types of treatment for HIV, epilepsy or tuberculosis, or take some herbal medicine  

  • if you have unprotected sex again after taking the morning after pill, you can still get pregnant, so you need to use another form of contraception to prevent pregnancy next time you have sex

  • the morning after pill isn’t designed to be a regular form of contraception. Other methods such as the implant, injections or contraceptive pill are better for long-term protection.

Advantages and disadvantages of the IUD

What do I do if I’ve had unprotected sex?

Get tested for STIs, including HIV – so you can get treatment if you need it. It is also worth thinking about what kind of birth control would be best for you so this doesn’t happen again. 

Will emergency contraception harm my chances of having a baby later on?

The morning after pill does not affect your ability to get pregnant in the future.  

If you use an IUD as emergency contraception, it will prevent pregnancy for as long as you keep it in (for up to five years). 

Let's talk about emergency contraception!

Here are a few questions to help kick-off discussions on the issues you need to talk about! You can share them on social, on WhatsApp or just get talking.

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What is the difference between emergency contraception and abortions?

The morning after pill is different from the abortion pill. Emergency contraception stops an egg being released so it can’t be fertilised, and this prevents a pregnancy from happening. An abortion ends a pregnancy that has already happened. 

Emergency contraception won’t work if someone is already pregnant, and it won’t harm an existing pregnancy. 

Can I make a homemade morning after pill?

No – homemade contraceptives of any kind don’t work and they can be dangerous. There is also no need to do this, as the morning after pill is available from pharmacies, sexual health clinics and doctors. 

What advice can I give to someone about emergency contraception?

The best thing you can do is to give them clear and accurate information, which you can find above.  

When you think the time is right you could also talk to them about their birth control options.  

Remember, the most effective way to support someone who is thinking about using any form of birth control is to respect their decisions, be open and do not judge.  

If they feel embarrassed about discussing sex with you, give them details of a friendly healthcare professional, a helpline or factual online resources, like this website. 

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  • Last updated: 11 April 2024
  • Last full review: 01 March 2022
  • Next full review: 01 March 2025
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