What is an Emergency Contraceptive Pill?

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  • Written By: Autumn Rivers
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2019
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The emergency contraceptive pill is medical means of preventing pregnancy once intercourse has already taken place. It is not advised that people rely on this method of contraception regularly, but it can be used in an exigent situation, such as after a condom fails, or following a rape. While this type of pill is often referred to as "the morning after pill," it typically works up to five days after intercourse, though it is usually most effective when taken sooner. In most areas, the emergency contraceptive pill is available at pharmacies without a prescription to those 17 or older, while younger teenagers usually need a prescription from a doctor.

One of the main types of emergency contraceptives contains progestin, which is the manmade form of the hormone progesterone. It is typically referred to as the Plan B pill, and it can usually be purchased from a pharmacist without a prescription by women and men 17 and older. Plan B usually consists of two pills that can be taken together for maximum effectiveness. Side effects are rare, but they usually include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, breast tenderness, dizziness, and abdominal pain.


There is also an emergency contraceptive pill that is prescription-only in both the United States and Europe. It is comprised of ulipristal acetate, and like Plan B, it is usually effective when taken up to five days after intercourse. In fact, it is generally considered slightly more effective than Plan B, and also has fewer side effects. There is another pill that is considered about equally effective, though it is comprised of mifepristone instead, and is only typically available in Russia and China.

Finally, one type of emergency contraceptive pill contains both progestin and estrogen, so pills like this are often referred to as combined emergency contraceptives. In most cases, this type of pill is really just a daily oral contraceptive, in which case the normal dose is doubled. The first pill should be taken within five days of intercourse, with a second pill being taken 12 hours later. Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of this type of emergency contraceptive pill, and since throwing up the pill can reduce its effectiveness, anti-nausea medication may be taken first. It should be noted that not every oral birth control pill can be used this way, since varying brands contain different amounts of hormones, but a doctor would likely know which types can be effectively used as emergency contraceptives.


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