a woman holding a blister pack of emergency contraception pills and a glass of water

What is emergency contraception and when should you use it?

You can be as careful as possible, but there’s always the chance that birth control might fail. Perhaps you forgot your pill, or maybe the condom split. These things happen. Unprotected sex isn’t anything to be embarrassed about!

However, when this situation occurs, it’s easy to freak out. But we’re here to give you the facts and point you towards the answer.

Keep reading for an unbiased guide to emergency contraception in the UK.

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception is a type of contraception used to prevent pregnancy immediately after unprotected sex or when a contraceptive method fails. You usually have three to five days to take it, depending on the type of contraception you choose.

When do you take emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception should be used if you’ve had unprotected sex and don’t wish to become pregnant. It should also be used if your contraception has failed, for example, when a condom rips or if you forget to take a pill. This way, the emergency contraception covers the standard contraceptive method.

There are different types, and each comes with different time windows to be taken. However, the general guideline is to take emergency contraception within three to five days of unprotected sex. Always check the guidelines with your chosen specific brand for accurate information.

Emergency contraception is always more effective when used sooner rather than later.

Types of emergency contraception

In the UK, you can access two main methods of emergency contraception. These are the copper intrauterine device (IUD or copper coil) and the emergency contraceptive pill (ellaOne and Levonelle).

The copper IUD is the most effective form of emergency contraception, and less than 0.1% of women become pregnant with this method.

The emergency pill still prevents pregnancies, but not as well as the IUD. Generally, the ellaOne pill is more effective than Levonelle. This is also called the morning-after pill.

All about the emergency pill

The emergency contraceptive pill tends to be more popular as it’s a less invasive and quicker option.

It works by preventing or delaying the release of an egg (ovulation). However, if you’re at the stage in your menstrual cycle where you’ve already ovulated, the contraceptive pill won’t work. This is why the IUD/coil is more effective.

However, it’s recommended to take the emergency contraceptive pill anyway, as working out when you’ve ovulated is tricky – even if you’re practising fertility tracking. Some studies show that the emergency pill can reduce the chances of pregnancy even after ovulation.

If in doubt, you should discuss your worries with your doctor. They may refer you to the copper coil/IUD for a more secure method of contraception.

Here’s what you need to know about each brand of pill:

  • Levonelle – This pill contains levonorgestrel, an artificial version of progesterone. This aims to delay or stop ovulation. You must take Levonelle within three days/72 hours of unprotected sex
  • ellaOne – This emergency pill contains ulipristal acetate, which inhibits progesterone. This also stops or delays the egg release. You have more time to take ellaOne. You can take this pill within five days/120 hours of unprotected sex

Depending on your BMI, the emergency pill might not be your route. This is because it makes it harder to provide a precise estimate for the pill needed.

If you vomit within two to three hours of taking either pill, you need to get another dose. Alternatively, you can get an IUD fitted.

Everything you need to know about the IUD/Copper coil

The IUD/copper coil is the most effective form of emergency contraception. However, it’s also a more invasive route. This is because IUDs are inserted into your uterus.

The copper IUD works by releasing copper into the womb. Copper alters your cervical mucus and makes it more difficult for sperm to survive. This dramatically lessens the chance of fertilisation.

A vital benefit of the IUD is that once it’s in, you can rely on it as a primary method of birth control for 5 to 10 years. It’s also non-hormonal, meaning if you want it removed to have children, your fertility isn’t affected.

a woman holding a blister pack of emergency contraception pills with a man in the background

Side effects of emergency contraception

Like standard contraception, emergency contraception can leave you with some pesky side effects.

The pill (oral contraceptive) can cause fatigue, irregular vaginal bleeding, vomiting, and nausea, and it may affect when your next period arrives. These side effects aren’t common and usually resolve without medical intervention.

Side effects of the IUD include pain, infection, heavier periods, or womb damage. There’s also a slight risk of the IUD expelling itself out of your womb. Again, these are all very rare.

However, if you do experience any of these symptoms, contact 111 or your medical provider for professional guidance.

How effective is emergency contraception?

The effectiveness depends on how soon you take or get it and whether or not you’ve ovulated.

When taken within the correct time window, 1 to 2% of women who take ellaOne get pregnant. In contrast, only 0.6 to 2.6 of women who take Levonelle become pregnant.

Fewer than 0.1% of women fall pregnant after receiving an IUD/copper coil after unprotected sex.

Where can you get emergency contraception in the UK?

Luckily, accessing emergency contraception in the UK is easy, and you can get it for free.

If you want the emergency pill for free, you can contact your GP, NHS walk-in centres, sexual health (GUM) clinics, contraceptive clinics, some hospital A&E departments, and some pharmacies.

You can buy Levonelle and ellaOne from most pharmacies and shops like Boots. Typically, Levonelle costs around £25 and ellaOne £35.

You can get the IUD for free from contraception clinics, sexual health (GUM) clinics, GP surgeries, and Brook centres.

a woman holding a blister pack of emergency contraception pills

After using emergency contraception

It’s normal to feel anxious after using emergency contraception.

After taking it, get the practical steps out of the way, such as getting screened for STIs and taking a pregnancy test on the date of your next period. These tasks can be nerve-wracking, so indulge in some self-care afterwards.

If the emergency contraceptive fails and you receive a positive pregnancy test, you should consult your doctor to discuss what’s best for you. Remember, you control your body, and there’s no right or wrong answer.

The takeaway

Hopefully, this article has helped you learn more about emergency contraception and how to access these services in the UK. Always discuss your options with a medical professional for a professional opinion when in doubt.

Share this guide with your friends to end the stigma surrounding emergency contraception and to raise awareness about the facts!

Learn more about sex, relationships, and taking care of yourself on the Vivastreet blog.

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