The most common form of emergency contraception is a single pill containing a 1.5mg dose of a hormone called levonorgestrel (LNG). This has been available in Australia since 2002. It is called the ECP (sometimes incorrectly called the ‘morning after pill’).
LNG is a progestogen hormone also found in some oral contraceptive pills. You take the ECP to reduce the chance of an unintended pregnancy after unprotected sex. For example, you can take it if you did not use contraception at all, if you missed your usual contraceptive pill or if you used a condom which broke during sex. The ECP is available over the counter at pharmacies.
An earlier method of emergency contraception known as the Yuzpe method is made up of a combination of combined oral contraceptive pills. This method is less effective than the LNG-ECP and often causes nausea and vomiting. It is only advised if the LNG-ECP is not available. Another effective method of emergency contraception is to have a copper IUD (intrauterine device) inserted, which can be done up to five days after you have had unprotected sex. However, this is not often readily accessible. You can talk with your doctor about these methods.
Evidence gathered by the World Health Organization has found that the ECP mainly works by stopping or delaying ovulation (the release of an egg from a woman’s ovaries). It may also prevent the egg and sperm from meeting. The ECP does not interrupt an established pregnancy, or harm a developing embryo or fetus if it is taken early in pregnancy.
It is important to keep on using other contraception, such as the contraceptive pill or condoms for the rest of the cycle until your next period in case you ovulate AFTER taking the ECP. Otherwise you could still become pregnant.
The ECP is more effective the sooner it is taken after unprotected sex. It can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex. It is safe to use the ECP more than once in a cycle.
If vomiting occurs less than two hours after you take the ECP, you should take another dose. If vomiting occurs MORE than two hours after taking it, there is no need to take another dose.
Some medications, including certain anti-epileptic medications, can reduce the effectiveness of the ECP and you may need an increased dose. Be sure to discuss any medications you are taking with the pharmacist or doctor.
The ECP is most effective when taken in the first 24 hours after unprotected intercourse. If taken within three days of unprotected intercourse the ECP will prevent approximately 85% of expected pregnancies. Remember, it is not 100% effective at preventing an unintended pregnancy. You may need to have a follow-up pregnancy test to make sure you are not pregnant, in a few weeks. You can discuss this with the pharmacist or doctor.
ECPs are very safe to use with no serious or long-lasting side-effects. Some women have experienced an irregular period after taking the ECP and a few may have nausea or breast tenderness.
Most women have a period at about the expected time but it may result in a period starting earlier than expected or being delayed. Some women might have some bleeding a few days after using the ECP but this is not a period.
You should talk to your GP, Family Planning clinic or NSW Talkline if:
• your period is more than a week late
• your period is unusual in any way
• you have any other concerns
• you wish to discuss your ongoing contraception needs
You may need to do a pregnancy test.
The ECP is available over the counter from a pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription.
World Health Organization. Fact sheet on the safety of levonorgestrel-alone emergency contraceptive pills (LNG ECPs). [Online, updated 2010]. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2010/WHO_RHR_HRP_10.06_eng.pdf. Accessed on 15 March 2011.
• Contact the Family Planning NSW Talkline on 1300 658 886 or go to www.fpnsw.org.au/talkline
• NRS (for deaf) 133 677
The information in this Factsheet has been provided for educational purposes only. FPNSW has taken every care to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date at the time of publication. Individuals concerned about any personal reproductive or sexual health issue are encouraged to seek advice and assistance from their health care provider or visit a Family Planning clinic.
Reviewed: May 2013 | FPNSW 05/13