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Emergency Contraception

What should I know about emergency birth control?

Emergency birth control is available to women but many do not know it exists. This treatment must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex in order to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. The following information will address questions regarding how and when Emergency Birth Control can be used. Also included are important facts which may help you decide whether or not this is the best option for you.

Is Emergency Birth Control the same as the "Morning After Pill?"

There really is no such thing as a single "morning after pill." Emergency Birth Control is actually a series of birth control pills taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex. If there is any risk of pregnancy after unprotected sex, after a condom breaks, or in cases of rape or sexual assault, then you might want to speak to your doctor about Emergency Birth Control. This birth control method requires a woman to take one dose of birth control pills and a second dose twelve hours later. Taking this increased amount of birth control pills stops fertilization of the egg so that the woman does not become pregnant. Emergency birth control is not the same thing as the "abortion pill," or RU486, which has just been approved for sale in the United States.

Is Emergency Birth Control treatment safe?

The FDA ruled in February 1997 that, if taken according to instructions, using oral contraceptives as emergency birth control is safe and effective in preventing pregnancy after unprotected sex. Contact your health care provider in order to discuss the treatment and any questions or concerns you may have.

What should I do if I need Emergency Birth Control?

You should know at what point in your menstrual cycle unprotected sexual intercourse occurred. If the unprotected sex occurred two weeks after the first day of your most recent period, you are at a great risk for pregnancy. You should take a urine pregnancy test to make sure that you are not already pregnant. If you discover that you are pregnant, do not use the Emergency Birth Control. Contact your health care provider in order to discuss the treatment and any questions or concerns you may have.

Which birth control pills can be used?

Most combination (estrogen and progesterone) birth control pills can be used (Ovral, Levien, Lo--ovral, Nordette, Tri Levlen, Triphasil).

How do I take the pills for Emergency Birth Control?

Take a urine pregnancy test to make sure that you are not already pregnant. If you discover that you are pregnant, do not use the Emergency Birth Control method. If you are not pregnant and decide to use this method, follow the instructions below after discussing them with your health care provider. The following is a list of oral contraceptives which the FDA have found to be effective as emergency contraception. The pills are taken in two doses, twelve hours apart.

Emergency Contraception
Birth Control 1st Dose 2nd Dose
Ovral* 2 pills 2 pills
Levlen 4 pills 4 pills
Lo-ovral* 4 pills 4 pills
Nordette* 4 pills 4 pills
Tri Levlen** 4 pills 4 pills
Triphasil** 4 pills 4 pills

* Take pills from the first three weeks of the birth control packet. ** Take pills from the third week of the birth control packet (pills are yellow). Be certain to see your health care provider in conjunction with using this series of pills.

First Dose: Swallow the pills in the first dose no later than 72 hours - three days - after having unprotected sex. The treatment is most effective if the first does is taken immediately after unprotected sex.

In order to prevent nausea, you may want to eat saltines or soda crackers while taking each dose.'

If you vomit within three hours of taking the first dose, take the second dose immediately.

Second Dose: Swallow the second dose 12 hours after taking the first dose.

If you vomit after taking the second dose, call your healthcare provider immediately.

I am not currently taking oral contraceptives; are there any prescription drugs my doctor can prescribe as emergency contraception?

Yes. The Food and Drug Administration has approved two prescription medications for use as emergency contraception: Preven (approved 09/01/98) and Plan B (approved 07/28/99). Contact your health care provider to obtain a prescription or infomation about these drugs.

Are there any side effects when using the Emergency Birth Control?

Women have complained of nausea and vomiting after starting the "Morning After Pill". Your health care provider can prescribe medication to help control the nausea. Despite these symptoms, it is very important that you complete the entire treatment to ensure that the treatment is successful. If the nausea becomes unbearable, contact your health care provider.

Using this emergency birth control method may also delay the start of your next period. Not all women experience this side effect.

What should I do after taking the series of pills?

After taking the pills, be sure to use another form of contraception (condoms plus a spermicide is best) if you have vaginal intercourse before your next period. If your regular form of birth control is the pill, you should start a new pack on the first Sunday of your next period.

How do I know if this method of emergency birth control worked?

Your regular period should start at about the expected time. Although the treatment could delay the menstrual cycle, you should get a regular period. If you do not get a regular period, contact your health care provider.

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What if I use this method of birth control but still become pregnant?

There is no data on the effects of increased amounts of hormones on a fetus. Some women opt to terminate the pregnancy.

Who can use this method?

This form of emergency birth control is available to most women. If you can use birth control pills as a regular form of birth control, then you can probably use this emergency method also. If you think that you may want to consider this contraceptive, your health care provider can give you a prescription.

Women with breast cancer, high blood pressure, who are already pregnant, or have had blood clots should not use this method. Your health care provider can help you choose an alternative method if you have any of these medical conditions.

All women should remember that this is a last resort contraceptive. Consider all your options and plan a regular contraceptive method with your physician.

How much does this treatment cost?

Despite the fact that the full "morning after" treatment consists of taking only four (4) to eight (8) pills, the entire packet of pills may be dispensed. You will be required to purchased the entire packet of birth control pills. One pack of combination pills will cost approximately $20.

How does emergency birth control differ from the "Abortion Pill" (RU486)?

Emergency birth control works by preventing the possibly fertilized egg from reaching the uterus.  The Abortion Pill (RU486) works after implantation has occurred and pregnancy is established.

For More Information...

You can find out more information on emergency contraception by contacting the following organizations:

Contributing to this FAQ on emergency contraception: Boston University, a National Center of Excellence in Women's Health sponsored by the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services

All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the source is appreciated.

Publication date: 2000

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