Everything You Need to Know About Emergency Contraception

Anyone who’s ever had a pregnancy scare knows just how nerve-wracking it can be, which is why it’s important to know everything there is to know about emergency contraceptive options. Birth control is great for preventing pregnancy, but it’s not 100% foolproof, either. When your birth control fails, or you’ve not used any protection at all, emergency contraception is your best bet. Here’s everything you need to know about the morning-after pill when you can’t afford to take any chances.

There are two types of morning-after pills

emergency contraception

Plan B emergency contraception is one type. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Although mainstream media has done a darn good job of making Plan B a well-known option, there are a couple different types of morning-after pills on the market. A newer option is ella, which uses ulipristal acetate as its active ingredient because it can delay ovulation for up to five days after unprotected sex or birth control failure. The second, and more widely known, kind of pill contains levonorgestrel. Also found in many other types of birth control pills, levonorgestrel is a manufactured hormone that works by decreasing ovulation, and has been in use since the 1960s.

While pills containing ulipristal acetate are sold only under the brand ella, there are a few different brands that use levonorgestrel. In addition to Plan B One-Step, there’s Next Choice One Dose, My Way, and levonorgestrel tablets.

There’s another kind of emergency contraception

three types of birth control

An IUD is the most effective method of emergency contraception. | iStock.com

Most people have heard of the morning-after pill, but what you might not know is that there’s another option. While most people associate a copper IUD insertion, like ParaGard, as a method of regular birth control that lasts for years, you may be surprised to learn that it can also help prevent pregnancy for up to five days after unprotected sex.

A copper IUD is the most effective method of emergency contraception, according to the Office of Population Affairs. Out of every 1,000 women who use the IUD as a form of emergency contraception, one will get pregnant. In comparison, seven out of eight women who would have become pregnant will not after taking a pill containing levonorgestrel, and about six or seven out of every 100 women who would have gotten pregnant will not after taking ella.

Emergency contraception works within three to five days after unprotected sex


The sooner, the better when it comes to emergency contraception. | iStock.com

The copper IUD can be used to prevent pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex, which comes in handy since you need to schedule an appointment with your doctor so he or she can insert it. Because there are several emergency contraceptive pills, the effective time period varies from three to five days after unprotected sex. Ella remains effective for five days and is considered to work just as well on day one as it is on day five. Most other progestin-only pills (such as Plan B) need to be taken within three days after having unprotected sex. Despite the differences in time, though, it’s recommended you take emergency contraception, regardless of form, as soon as possible.

Is a prescription required?

Medical physician doctor woman writing with laptop on table

You may need a prescription. | iStock.com

It depends. Ella does require a prescription, but most other morning-after pills do not. Plan B One-Step is available without a prescription for women and girls of any age and can even be found in the feminine care aisle at most stores. Next Choice One Dose is available over-the-counter for women 17 years and older, and My Way is available behind the counter at pharmacies without a prescription for women 17 years and older, and with a prescription for girls younger than 17.

Interestingly enough, you can even order some pills online, so now you can discreetly place the morning-after pill in your online cart right next to those condoms. Great news, right? Wrong. AfterPill, for example, which is a type of levonorgestrel tablet, is only available online. But watch out, because you likely won’t receive the pill until five to seven days after ordering it, which, for obvious time-sensitive reasons, isn’t very helpful.

Your weight might render the pill ineffective

female feet on a weighing scale

The morning-after pill may be ineffective on overweight women. | iStock.com

If you’re overweight, your best bet is going with an IUD, since there’s a chance the morning-after pill won’t work. According to Planned Parenthood, ella becomes less effective if your BMI is higher than 35. Plan B One-Step and Next Choice One Dose become less effective if your BMI is higher than 25, and if it’s higher than 30, it may not work at all.

How to decide which morning-after pill is right for you

Four Healthy Young Women Jogging

Find out which alternative is the best for you. | iStock.com/LarsZahnerPhotography

According to The Emergency Contraception Website, choosing which kind of emergency contraception to take depends on a woman’s individual menstrual cycle. If you’re too close to ovulation, morning-after pills may not work as well for preventing pregnancy.