Emergency Contraceptives4 Min Read
Emergency contraceptives are available at most drug stores — but there’s a lot that people don’t know about them. While you should talk to a doctor before taking any kind of medication, it’s worth knowing your options should you find yourself or your partner in a bind.
What is it?
Much like birth control, an emergency contraceptive (EC) is utilized to stop pregnancy by releasing hormones that prevent a person from ovulating (1). It must be taken between 72 and 120 hours of the sexual encounter to be effective, though exact timing will depend on the type of EC a person takes. Generally, however, the earlier you take it the better.
It’s worth emphasizing that emergency contraceptives are not abortion pills. If a person who is pregnant takes an emergency contraceptive such as Plan B, both the person taking the pill and the implanted fetus will remain unharmed.
Though they have received FDA approval and are most similar to other types of birth control pills, ECs have long served as a point of controversy. There are several types of emergency contraceptives that are available over the counter in most states. However, the level of restriction to access, such as the need for a prescription, and the general availability, such as the number of pharmacies that carry ECs, will vary by state.
The Most Common ECs
Levonorgestrel is particularly popular. One survey even found that over 85 percent of respondents prefer it to other forms of EC (3). Plan B is perhaps the most famous brand. As explained by the Mayo Clinic, it contains progestin, which is a synthetic form of progesterone that can “prevent ovulation, block fertilization or keep a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.” This must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse and can be purchased over-the-counter at most pharmacies. Ella, by contrast, uses ulipristal acetate to similar effect. It can be taken up to five days (120 hours) after intercourse, but it does require a prescription, which makes it a less viable option for many people.
Yuzpe utilizes several hormones and requires a person to take several of their previously-prescribed birth control pills. It is worth mentioning that this method has more notable side effects, such as nausea and dizziness, in comparison to levonorgestrel.
A non-hormonal option is to have the Paragard IUD, which is made of copper, inserted within five days of intercourse. However, this requires a doctor’s appointment, which also makes this a less-utilized EC method.
Be Aware of These Common Mishaps:
There are ways to still get pregnant after taking an EC, especially given that they must be taken within the right timeframe, before ovulation begins.
A person’s weight can also affect an EC’s ability to do its job. Plan B and other over-the-counter pills decrease in efficacy for anyone over 155 pounds, and Ella is less likely to work for people who weigh more than 195 pounds.
Many people also jump to take birth control, on top of the EC, to avoid pregnancy. That would essentially mean taking Ella, for example, while also utilizing the Yuzpe method. This often makes the methods less effective overall — it’s far better to find one treatment and stick with it.
Ultimately, it’s always worth talking with your doctor about the best plan for you.
Making Them More Accessible
As safe as emergency contraceptives are, we’re likely going to hear people try to debate their provenance for years to come. You can blame a general lack of knowledge on the drugs’ effects and the false idea that they will harm a pregnant woman’s fetus (1).
Other people worry that birth control methods such as condoms, daily birth control pills, or IUDs will become a measure of the past if people have greater access to over-the-counter pills. However, one group of researchers found that the women who used emergency contraceptives were not turning away from methods of preventative contraception (4). Instead, ECs were only used as a last resort when other methods of birth control failed them.
(Besides, emergency contraceptives don’t stop the spread of STDs, so always use a condom even if you or your partner are on the pill!)
The U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of unintended pregnancy of all developed nations in the world — and the best way to lower those numbers is by focusing on sexual wellness and pregnancy prevention. Out-of-date ideologies and restrictions based on religion only add to this healthcare crisis. And while it’s not the only answer, it is worth considering ECs as part of the solution.
- Friedrichs, Ellen. Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World. Cleis Press, 2019.
- Van Look, Paul FA, and Helena Von Hertzen. "Emergency contraception." British medical bulletin 49.1 (1993): 158-170.
- Grimes, David A., and Elizabeth G. Raymond. "Emergency contraception." Annals of Internal Medicine 137.3 (2002): 180-189.
- Glasier, Anna, and David Baird. "The effects of self-administering emergency contraception." New England Journal of Medicine 339.1 (1998): 1-4.
- Parenthood, Planned. “What Kind of Emergency Contraception Is Best For Me?” Planned Parenthood, www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/morning-after-pill-emergency-contraception/which-kind-emergency-contraception-should-i-use.