Emergency contraception

How does emergency contraception work and where can you buy it?


So you’ve been to a party, you have met a very good looking guy and you’ve had one drink too many. One thing leads to another….then you wake up the next morning wondering what on earth you have done!

This has happened and will happen to many more women. Don’t panic, there are a number of ways of preventing unwanted pregnancy, even after the act!

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Levonelle from £12.05
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ellaOne from £23.65
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The reason you are looking for emergency contraception is most likely that you are not using any other contraception or because the condom broke. You may already be taking hormonal contraception but you may still be at risk of pregnancy because:

  • You forgot to take some of your pills
  • You forgot to put your contraceptive patch one
  • You were late having the contraceptive implant fitted

We are going to explore all the options which are open to you.


Types of emergency contraception

Although there are a number of options available in each category, there are two types of emergency contraception:

  • The emergency contraceptive pill, also known as the morning after pill
  • The intrauterine device, also known as the IUD or coil


The morning after pill

Contrary to the belief held by some people, the morning after pill is not an abortion pill. The difference is that the morning after pill prevents a fertilised egg from implanting in the uterus and so a pregnancy never exists. An abortion pill acts to terminate a pregnancy where the fertilised egg has already implanted.



The active ingredient found in Leonelle is levonorgestrel; this is a synthetic hormone which is a man made version of progesterone which is a natural hormone produced in the ovaries. The action of this synthetic hormone is to prevent or at least delay ovulation (when an egg is released)

Levonelle must be taken within 72 hours (three days) of having sexual intercourse in order to be effective. 



The active ingredient in ellaOne is ulipristal acetate which interferes with the normal action of progesterone. In doing this it prevents or delays the release of an egg during ovulation.

The advantage of ellaOne is that to be effective it has a longer period of efficacy and can be taken within 120 hours (5 days) of having sex.

It is important to remember that neither Levonelle nor ellaOne continue to protect you from becoming pregnant and if you have unprotected sex again then you can still become pregnant.

They are exactly as described, emergency contraception and are not designed to be used as a regular form of contraception. However, it is important to know that if you need to, you can use the morning after pill more than once in a menstrual cycle.


Who can take the morning after pill

Most women can use the morning after pill.  There are a number of reasons however that this may not be suitable and they include:

  • If you are allergic to any of the ingredients in the pills
  • If you have severe asthma
  • You use the herbal remedy St. John's Wort
  • If you take some medications used to treat epilepsy
  • If you are taking some medications used to treat Tuberculosis
  • If you are taking some medications to treat stomach acid such as omeprazole
  • If you are taking some less common antibiotics such as rifampicin and rifabutin

ellaOne cannot be used at all in conjunction with any of this medication as it will not work; Levonelle can still be effective but the dose may need to be increased.

If you are unsure it is important that you seek the advice of your GP or pharmacist who will be able to advise you.

If you are breastfeeding then Levonelle may still be used. A small amount of the medication may pass into the breast milk but it is not thought to cause any harm to your child. It is not known if ellaOne is safe during breastfeeding and so does not recommend breastfeeding within one week of taking the pill.


Side effects of the morning after pill

Any side effects tend not to be serious nor are they long lasting. However, side effects it may cause include:

  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Your next period may be earlier or later than expected or more painful
  • If you are feeling or being sick within two hours of taking Levonelle or within 3 hours of taking ellaOne, then you must seek medical attention as you will need to have a repeat dose of having an IUD fitted.

If your symptoms have not gone after a few days you may need to seek medical attention or if:

  • You think you are pregnant
  • Your next period is more than a week late
  • Your period is shorter or lighter than usual
  • You have sudden abdominal pain in which case a fertilised egg may have implanted outside the uterus, also known as an ectopic pregnancy

If you feel that unprotected sex may occur in the future then it may be possible to keep a dose in stock but speak to your healthcare professional first.


The intrauterine device as emergency contraception

The IUD is a small, T-shaped copper and plastic device that is inserted into the uterus by a doctor or nurse. It releases copper to prevent a fertilised egg from implanting into the wall of the uterus.

The IUD can be inserted for up to five days after sexual intercourse or up to five days after the earliest time that that ovulation could have occurred. It is more effective at preventing pregnancy than using the morning after pill.


Who can use the IUD?

The IUD is a suitable form of emergency contraception for most women. Your healthcare professional will take a medical history from you to check whether an IUD is suitable for you. Reasons why the IUD may not be suitable include:

  • You have an untreated sexual transmitted infection or a pelvic infection
  • There are any problems with the uterus or cervix
  • You have unexplained periods of bleeding between each menstrual period or after sexual intercourse

It is safe to use the IUD as emergency contraception if you are breastfeeding but not if there is any chance that you are pregnant.


Side effects of the IUD

Complications of having an IUD fitted are rare but may include:

  • Pain
  • Infection
  • Damage to the uterus
  • Expelling the IUD
  • Heavier, longer and more painful periods


Availability of emergency contraception

Emergency contraception can be obtained free of charge in  the following places:

  • Contraception clinics
  • Sexual health or genitourinary medicine clinics
  • Some GP surgeries
  • Most NHS walk-in clinics and minor injuries units
  • Most pharmacies
  • Some A and E departments

Provided you are aged sixteen years and over you can buy the morning after pill from most pharmacies, online and from some organisations such as British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).



In order to avoid the necessity to seek emergency contraception, it would be advisable to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy in advance.

Very popular methods that do not necessarily involve taking a pill daily include:

  • The contraceptive implant
  • The Contraceptive injection
  • The contraceptive patch
  • The intrauterine device

If you are unsure then medical assistance is freely available at any of the laces listed in the ‘availability’ section.

If you are under sixteen years old, contraceptive services are free and confidential. Provided the healthcare provider is satisfied that you fully understand all the implications of the decisions you are making, they will not tell your parents or guardian about the consultation.

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