Accidents happen to the best of us. Let’s face it: we all make mistakes. When owned and recognized early, they can frequently be fixed. Contraception (or lack thereof) can fail. Pills can be forgotten, condoms can be broken, and timing can be off. Luckily, emergency contraception is available and if used appropriately can effectively prevent pregnancy in the majority of cases. Emergency contraception comes in two basic forms—oral and intrauterine (the Copper T IUD). As the oral form was the original and is available over the counter for women above the age of 17, it is the form that is much more well-known. In fact, it’s fair to say that most women are unaware that there is even another option out there!
Furthermore, the IUD (a.k.a. the “other” form) requires a visit to your OB/GYN as it must be placed in the uterus by a medical professional. But common things being common, the most commonly used oral emergency contraception is either a combination estrogen and progesterone pill or a progesterone-only pill. One regimen requires two doses administered twelve hours apart, and the other, just a one-time dose. These medications are currently available to almost all in need at the nearby CVS or Duane Reade; where the medications will be placed (over-the-counter vs. pharmacist) is dependent on age. The line in the sand has been drawn at 17; women younger than 17 require a prescription to get the goods, while women 17 and older can pick up the medication without a prescription.
When the medication is taken or placed (in the case of the Copper T IUD) is key; the success of the drug is dependent on how soon in relation to the “event” (a.k.a. unprotected sex or contraception failure) it is taken. After 120 hours (five days), emergency contraception is virtually ineffective. Simply stated, you can take it, but it won’t work. If taken within 72 hours, the chance of success is really high—here are the stats. Data from research done by the WHO (World Health Organization) show that, if taken with 24 hours, 95% of pregnancies are prevented, if taken in 25–48 hours 85% of pregnancies are prevented, and if taken within 49–72 hours 58% are prevented.
After that, we still see success but at a much lower rate. Not surprisingly, an IUD placed for emergency contraception works almost in overtime; less than 1% of women who use the IUD get pregnant. And with the IUD, the hits just keep on coming. It not only works for that act of unprotected intercourse but also serves as excellent contraception for the future. While side effects do exist, they are generally mild and fairly tolerable. The most common include nausea, vomiting, and irregular bleeding. The medications can throw off your menstrual cycle, causing irregular bleeding. Both are transient and will resolve fairly quickly. If the nausea is bad, an anti-nausea pill can be taken to help you keep things down.
Emergency contraception can be taken more than once in the same cycle and, if need be, again in future cycles. The medical data do not show that multiple doses are unsafe. However, keep in mind that emergency contraception is best used in emergency situations. Additionally, it is less effective at preventing pregnancy than almost any other form of contraception, and therefore, if you continually find yourself scouring the aisles of your local drugstore, you are overdue for a visit to your OB/GYN to discuss a reliable form of contraception. Just to make sure we are all on the same page, emergency contraception is not the same thing as an abortion. An abortion terminates or ends an existing pregnancy. Emergency contraception prevents a pregnancy from happening. If an embryo has already burrowed its way into your uterus and has begun to grow, emergency contraception won’t work.
No one really wants to take the morning-after pill or have an IUD emergently placed. But stuff happens. There are ways to prevent an unwanted pregnancy that have a really good chance of working. Go the drugstore, call your OB/GYN—take action. While you may be ready for a baby in the future, today is likely not the day. Know what’s available to you, know how to safely get what you need, and know that you are not alone. You are not the first person this has happened to, and you certainly won’t be the last!