Skip to Content

Emergency Contraception


What is 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.

How does EC work?

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.

What do I need to know about 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 caregivers 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.

What do I need to know if I 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.

When should I seek immediate care?

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

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • 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.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.