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Emergency Contraception


Emergency contraception (EC) is medicine or an intrauterine device (IUD) used to prevent pregnancy when birth control fails or was not used. EC can also be used after a sexual assault. You can still get pregnant after you use EC, but your chances of pregnancy are greatly reduced. EC is safe but is not a substitute for long-term birth control.


Return to the emergency department if:

  • You have heavy vaginal bleeding.
  • You have severe abdominal pain or a fever.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You vomit within 3 hours of taking hormonal EC.
  • Your next period does not occur within 21 days after you take EC.
  • Your next period is not normal for you.
  • You have tender breasts, nausea, and fatigue that do not go away.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

How EC works:

EC prevents or delays ovulation. It will not harm an established pregnancy or cause an abortion. EC can be used up to 5 days after intercourse, but works best when used as soon as possible. Because it prevents or delays ovulation, you may ovulate later in your cycle. This means you can get pregnant if you have unprotected intercourse several days after you use EC.

If you use hormonal EC:

Hormonal EC is given as 1 or 2 pills. Some brands are only available by prescription. One brand is available over-the-counter. Not all pharmacies carry the over-the-counter brand, so you may need to ask healthcare providers where to find it. The side effects include nausea and vomiting, spotting or irregular bleeding, breast tenderness, dizziness or tiredness, and headache. You must do the following to properly use hormonal EC:

  • Use hormonal EC exactly as directed.
  • Use condoms for the rest of your cycle, because you can still get pregnant if you ovulate later than you usually do.
  • Follow up with your healthcare provider to talk about the best long-term birth control method for you.

If you receive a copper IUD:

A copper IUD placed in your uterus within 7 days of intercourse can prevent pregnancy. An IUD will not protect you from sexually transmitted infections. The IUD can remain in your uterus for up to 10 years to provide long-term birth control. You need a vaginal exam, a pregnancy test, and tests for infections before you receive an IUD. It cannot be inserted if you have an infection. The side effects of a copper IUD include spotting and heavy periods for the first 3 to 6 months of use.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

You may need to return for a pregnancy test or tests for sexually transmitted infections. Tell your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about long-term birth control. Write down any other questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.