HIV Aids

Emergency Contraception: Here’s What You Should Know


It happens — that rare occasion when the condom slips, breaks, or you don’t get around to putting it on at all. Even with the best intentions, plans fall apart. If you’re not ready to jump into parenthood quite yet, don’t fret: You still have some options; namely, emergency contraception (EC).

What Exactly Is Emergency Contraception?

Let’s start with the basics. Think of EC as your second chance. It can keep you from becoming pregnant after having unprotected sex, or if your birth control method fails. There are a few choices available, and even some that you can get without a prescription.

As great as emergency contraception is, it shouldn’t be used as a regular form of birth control. So, before you jump into that uncomplicated, no-strings-attached “hook-up,” have a chat with your health care provider to help you pick a birth control method that will work best for you.

Next Step: Choosing an Emergency Contraception Method

Here are some of the most commonly used EC methods:

  • A copper intrauterine device (IUD), which is placed within five days after having unprotected sex. Yes, that’s right: A copper IUD can be used as emergency contraception, but you must have an appointment with a doctor or nurse to have it placed.
  • You can also take an emergency contraception pill within five days of unprotected intercourse. Currently, there are two types of pills available: Ella, or ulipristal, and Plan B, which is also known by other names like AfterPill, My Way, and Take Action.

How Do These Pills Even Work?

Forget what you’ve heard. Emergency contraception pills do not cause abortions. Both Ella and Plan B stop pregnancy from happening, but these pills cannot prevent or end a pregnancy if a fertilized egg is already implanted.

Ella prevents pregnancy by delaying or stopping ovulation if you take it within five days of unprotected intercourse. This powerful pill is only available by prescription, so plan ahead in case you need it.

Plan B or a similar progestin-only pill also delays or stops ovulation from happening. Like Ella, these pills can be taken up to five days after having unprotected sex, but they are most effective if they are taken within three days. You can find these pills in the family planning section at a local pharmacy, and you don’t need a prescription to buy it, which makes it convenient.

Pill-Taking 101

Using emergency contraception pills is quick and easy. Both Ella and Plan B are usually given as a single pill that you take only once within three days to five days after having unprotected sex. If you’re tempted to take extra birth control pills, “just to be sure,” don’t! This will not decrease your chances of getting pregnant — in fact, it will only make you feel sick.

OK, So What Are the Side Effects?

It’s not uncommon to experience irregular bleeding or spotting after taking EC pills, but don’t worry — this will eventually go away on its own.

You may also experience symptoms like:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Breast tenderness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

It’s also important to know that your next period may not happen at the expected time after taking the pills — but don’t freak out! This is temporary, and eventually, your period will regulate itself out. If you don’t get your period within three weeks after taking emergency contraception pills, take a pregnancy test and schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Er … So What Is an IUD again, and What Are Some Side Effects?

The copper IUD, also known as ParaGard, prevents pregnancy by thickening your cervical mucus, making it harder for sperm to reach your egg. Once in place, it can prevent pregnancy for up to 12 years, but it is completely reversible for whenever you are ready to grow your baby bump. A quick trip to your doctor is what is needed to have it placed.

After your IUD is inserted, you may experience more cramps and heavier bleeding, especially for the first few months, but these symptoms usually go away within the first year.

How Effective Is Emergency Contraception Anyway?

Only one or two out of 100 women who use EC pills will become pregnant despite taking them within 72 hours after having unprotected intercourse. Only one out of 1,000 who have the copper IUD placed will become pregnant.

While emergency contraception does provide some reassurance, it’s important to know that it doesn’t prevent all pregnancies.

How Much Is This Going to Set Me Back? And Where Do I Get Emergency Contraception?

Ella is only available by prescription and costs between $40 and $68. It’s a good idea to check with your insurance company before handing over your hard-earned cash, since many plans often cover the cost of the pill.

You can pick up the Plan B pill over-the-counter at most pharmacies for $35 to $60. Be sure to call ahead before making a trip, just to make sure it’s in stock.

ParaGard can range in price between $0 to $1,000, but it is covered by most insurance plans.

One Last Question — Does Emergency Contraception Protect Me From STIs?

So, here’s the thing: EC can prevent unplanned pregnancies, but it doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections (STI). Using condoms consistently every single time you have sex is the only way to protect yourself against infections.

Also, if you think you may have been exposed to HIV, consider starting post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Taking antiretroviral medicines after a potential exposure can prevent HIV, but only when they are taken correctly. PEP medicines must be started within 72 hours after possible exposure. Once you start the regimen, you’ll need to take the medicine once or twice a day for 28 days. Talk to your doctor right away if you think you might need a prescription.

Preventing Unplanned Pregnancy

Emergency contraception is safe and effective in preventing pregnancy. By understanding all the options available, you can make an informed decision and delay parenthood until the time is right.

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