Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your contraception method fails and you find yourself concerned about an unwanted pregnancy. Dependent on the type of morning after pill you take, if you’re within one to five days after having unprotected sex, a form of emergency contraception might be able to prevent you from becoming pregnant.
One such option is known as the morning-after pill.
The first widely available morning-after pill was approved by the FDA in 1999. Now, there are several different pills to choose from. The best option for which type of emergency contraceptive pill is best for you depends on several factors, including your weight and how long it has been since you had unprotected sex.
When comparing your options for an emergency contraception pill, you’ll want to know what different types are available and how they work. In this guide, we’ll cover how the morning-after pill can help prevent pregnancy, when you can use it, and the different options that exist.
What is the morning-after pill?
While the morning-after pill has been around for a while, some people may be confused about it and wondering how does it work, how often can you take the Plan B morning-after pill, and how effective is it. It’s important to start from the beginning and answer what it is exactly.
The concept of emergency contraception has been around for decades. As far back as the 1960s, victims of rape were provided with high doses of estrogen to prevent pregnancy. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that the first FDA-approved emergency contraception product, Plan B, became available in the United States.
Now perhaps more commonly known as the morning-after pill, emergency contraceptives such as Plan B are used to prevent unwanted pregnancy aftersexual intercourse. Some situations where the morning-after pill might be able to help you include:
You didn’t use a condom during vaginal sex
You accidentally missed your regular birth control pill
You were late getting your birth control shot
The condom broke during vaginal sex
You were forced to have unprotected vaginal sex against your will
In these situations, the morning-after pill can provide safe and effective pregnancy prevention besides your regular birth control. To maximize its effectiveness, however, it’s vital to understand how the morning-after pill works, in what time frame you should use it, and other factors that may impact its ability to prevent pregnancy.
How does the morning-after pill work?
Now that you know what emergency contraceptive pills, or morning-after pills, are, let’s answer the question, how do morning-after pills work? After you have unprotected vaginal intercourse, pregnancy doesn’t occur immediately. You have a short window during which you can stop fertilization from happening.
In a nutshell, the morning-after pill works by stopping you from ovulating. If you don’t ovulate, there won’t be an egg for the sperm to fertilize.
This is why the timing is so critical. If you’ve already ovulated, the contraceptive pill may not work. Taking the morning-after pill as soon as possible after unprotected vaginal intercourse gives you the highest likelihood that it will effectively prevent pregnancy.
How effective is the morning-after pill?
It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact likelihood of success when you use the morning-after pill. In general, studies have shown that the morning-after pill in all of its forms prevents pregnancy between 56% to 90% of the time.
This range exists largely because different kinds of morning-after pills can have different rates of success. In addition, the effectiveness of the morning-after pill depends on a few factors, including:
How long it has been since you had sex– The sooner you can take the morning-after pill after unprotected intercourse, the more effective it’s likely to be. This is especially true of levonorgestrel pills, such as Plan B. Other morning-after pill options, like ella, can be effective within a slightly longer time frame, but it’s still better to take them as soon as possible.
Your weight – Your weight will also influence how effective the morning-after pill is for you. Plan B is more effective for individuals weighing less than 165 pounds, while ella is most effective if you weigh less than 195 pounds.
The type of pill you use – There are two types of pills. Those that rely on the hormone levonorgestrel, like Plan B, are slightly less effective but easy to acquire. Pills which use ulipristal acetate instead of hormones, like ella, can be more effective but require a prescription from your healthcare provider.
These factors can influence the level of effectiveness of the pill. But in all cases where you have had unprotected sex and fear you might become pregnant, using some form of emergency contraception is more effective than using none at all.
What are the different types of morning-after pills?
Just like different types of birth control, morning-after pills come in two different forms. The first option relies on the hormone levonorgestrel to suppress ovulation and prevent pregnancy. The second option doesn’t use hormones. Instead, non-hormonal morning-after pills contain ulipristal acetate.
Still, there are times when a morning-after pill may not be suitable for you, whether due to health concerns, access, or other reasons. If a morning-after pill isn’t appropriate for your situation, there is another widely available alternative that may prevent pregnancy after unprotected vaginal intercourse: the IUD.
Below, we’ll cover all these options in more detail.
Levonorgestrel is a form of emergency hormonal contraception and a synthetic form of progesterone. You may also find levonorgestrel in certain combination birth control pills. As used in the morning-after pill, levonorgestrel works by temporarily stopping your body from ovulating. This can prevent you from becoming pregnant if you take the pill within the one to three-day window and you have not yet ovulated.
Some common brands of morning-after pills that use levonorgestrel include:
You can typically obtain this type of morning-after pill from a pharmacy without a prescription, which means they are often the easiest-to-obtain option for emergency contraception.
Other pills don’t use hormones at all. Instead, another form of emergency contraception by the brand name ella uses ulipristal acetate.
Ulipristal acetate works by binding to your body’s progesterone receptors. Once there, it suppresses ovulation temporarily. This process prevents an egg from being released. Without an egg, the sperm has nothing to fertilize.
You can take ella within one to five days of having unprotected vaginal sex to help prevent pregnancy. However, ella isn’t available over-the-counter like many levonorgestrel morning-after pills are. Instead, you’ll need to first receive a prescription for this morning-after pill through a consultation with your healthcare provider.
Some people prefer to use a form of emergency contraception that can become long-lasting birth control, or when morning-after pills aren’t an option for various reasons. This is where the copper IUD can be a helpful alternative.
The letters IUD stand for intrauterine device, and that’s exactly what an IUD is—a device that is inserted into your uterus to prevent pregnancy. An IUD has become a popular birth control option for many people who menstruate. A copper IUD is a small plastic device with copper wrapped around it. Copper repels sperm, thereby preventing pregnancy by making it so that sperm cannot reach an egg.
You can have a copper IUD inserted up to five days after unprotected sex to help prevent pregnancy from occurring. The copper IUD has some pros, including:
It can provide birth control protection for 7 to 12 years
It may work up to five days after unprotected sex
A copper IUD does require insertion by a qualified health professional. This can make it a little more difficult to use as emergency contraception if you can’t schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. For a copper IUD to be effective as an emergency form of birth control, you’ll want to have the procedure no more than five days after unprotected vaginal sex. Read our in depth blog to learn more about IUD pros and cons to determine if it’s the right method for you.
What are the risks of taking morning-after pills?
If you decide to use the morning-after pill as your form of emergency contraception, there are few serious risks. Even though levonorgestrel pills use the same hormone as some birth control pills, the hormone isn’t taken continuously, so you may not experience the same kind of risks you might with birth control pills.
Unpleasant side effects of Plan B emergency contraception and other levonorgestrel pills may include:
Dizziness or lightheadedness
The side effects of ella are similar to those associated with levonorgestrel pills. However, one point to be aware of with ella is that it can interfere with hormonal forms of birth control:
After taking ella, you might need to delay starting a new pack of oral contraceptives or getting your next dose of the birth control shot for up to six days.
In addition, those who are breastfeeding should dump their milk for at least 36 hours after taking ella.
For more guidance on these side effects, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider when you obtain your prescription for ella.
How to use morning-after pills
Whichever type you decide to use, ella vs. Plan B, the morning-after pill is very simple to use. Once you’ve purchased either a levonorgestrel pill like Plan B or a ulipristal acetate pill like ella, you should simply take the pill as soon as possible by following the instructions on the package.
Remember, you have a short window to take the pill. The sooner you can obtain and take emergency contraception, the more likely it will be effective at preventing pregnancy.
Learn more about your contraceptive options with The Pill Club
Emergency contraceptives, such as the morning-after pill, are safe and effective methods that can help prevent pregnancy in certain situations following unprotected sex. By taking the time to understand your options, you’ll be better able to make the right choice for yourself when you need it. But sometimes, a little extra guidance can go a long way.
If you’ve had unprotected vaginal sex and are worried about becoming pregnant, we can help you better understand your options.
The Pill Club provides telemedicine consultations, prescriptions, sexual wellness products, and more. Sign up today to learn more and take control of your reproductive health.
At The Pill Club, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Articles are written by experienced contributors; they are grounded in research and evidence-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and extensively reviewed by our team of experts to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.