The morning-after pill or emergency contraceptive pill can be taken after unprotected sex to stop you from falling pregnant. There are two types available in the UK, namely Levonelle and ellaOne. Levonelle can be taken up to three days after unprotected sex, while ellaOne provides you with more flexibility and can be taken up to five days afterwards. Both variants, however, work better when they are taken as soon as possible.
The morning-after pill has a single active ingredient, namely artificial progestogen. Progestogen is a naturally occurring female hormone that regulates various different functions in the female reproductive system, including preparing the womb lining to receive an egg during the menstrual cycle. Normally progestogen is produced by the ovaries, but if it is artificially introduced into the system in the form of the morning-after pill or other hormonal contraceptives, it can alter natural functions to prevent pregnancy. The artificial progestogen in Levonelle is known as levonogestrel. ellaOne contains ulipristal acetate, which isn't progestogen, but regulates how natural progestogen is used in the body.
When you take Levonelle or ellaOne, it works to prevent pregnancy by making the body think that ovulation has already happened, which means that an egg doesn't get released like it usually would during your cycle. These emergency contraceptives also change the mucus in the neck of the womb, preventing sperm from moving into the womb to fertilise an egg. It also stops the womb lining from preparing itself to receive an egg.
Levonelle is believed to be able to prevent 84% of pregnancies if it is taken within the recommended three days; however it is at its most effective, which is 95%, if you take it within the first 12 to 24 hours. ellaOne prevented 98 out of every 100 potential pregnancies when it was taken within the prescribed five day period during clinical trials.
The morning-after pill is available online to women over the age of 18 to order in case of a future contraceptive emergency. If you require urgent help, go to a doctor or GUM clinic straight away. Unlike ellaOne, Levonelle is available over-the-counter to girls aged 16 or over from a pharmacy.
The morning after pill isn't likely to cause any serious side effects or long term fertility problems, provided it's taken correctly. It is extremely important not to use an emergency contraceptive if you are already pregnant, if you've already used it during your menstrual cycle or if you are allergic to any of the active ingredients. Some women may experience mild nausea, issues concentrating and changes in their menstrual cycle after taking ellaOne or Levonelle. Tell your doctor if you are concerned about the side effects you are experiencing, or if your period is more than seven days late, lighter than usual, or if you experience pain in your lower abdomen.
The morning-after pill may not be as effective as it should be if you are sick within three hours of taking it. So if this is the case, you should speak to a doctor or pharmacist who may choose to prescribe another one. There are also certain medications which may make the morning-after pill less effective. These could be treatments that suppress the immune system, treat liver disease or fungal, bacterial or viral infections. Make sure you mention all medications you are taking when you do your online consultation or speak to your doctor. The patient information leaflet will also be helpful.
The morning-after pill doesn't provide continual protection, so once it has been taken you should use a barrier contraceptive (condom) until your next period starts. If you are already using a hormonal contraceptive, just carry on taking it as normal after taking the morning-after pill, but you will also need to use an additional measure until you start to menstruate. You shouldn't use the morning-after pill again until the start of your next cycle, should you need it.
The morning-after pill offers no protection against sexually transmitted infections. Using a condom or avoiding sex is the only way to prevent the spread of STIs.
Apart from the morning-after pill, there is another form of emergency contraception available, namely the IUD or intrauterine device. The IUD is a copper device, also known as 'the coil', that can be inserted into the uterus up to five days after you've had unprotected sex, or after you've ovulated. It stops pregnancy by preventing an egg from attaching to the womb lining. Once inserted, the IUD can be left in place and can serve as a form of long-term reversible contraception. The IUD can be inserted at specialist clinics or GP offices, but may be more suitable to women who have already given birth.