×

Got a question?

Use the Ask Brook 24/7 tool to answer your query or search FAQs

Find a service

Search for your nearest Brook sexual health service here

Emergency contraception (including the morning after pill)

If you’ve had sex without using contraception, or you think your contraception may have failed don’t panic – if you act fast you can usually prevent pregnancy by using emergency contraception.

There are two types of emergency contraception: the emergency contraceptive pill (often referred to as the morning after pill) and the intrauterine device (IUD). The IUD is the most effective method of emergency contraception.

Here are some key facts about each:

The emergency contraceptive or 'morning after' pill

  • Emergency contraceptive pills work by preventing or delaying ovulation
  • Although often called the 'morning after pill' you can actually take it 3-5 days after unprotected sex
  • There are two types of this pill:
    • Levonorgestrel (LNG) which can be taken up to 72 (3 days) after unprotected sex. However, you may be given LNG up to 96 hours (four days) as evidence suggests it may still work between 72-96 hours after unprotected sex.
    • Ulipristal Acetate (UPA) which can be taken up to 120 hours (five days) after unprotected sex
  • The emergency contraceptive pill is more effective the sooner you take it

The intrauterine device (IUD) 

  • The IUD must be fitted by a specially trained doctor or nurse within five days of unprotected sex, or five days after the earliest time you could have ovulated
  • The IUD is made from plastic and copper - the copper is toxic to sperm
  • The IUD is also designed to stop an egg from implanting in your uterus (womb)
  • If you have the IUD fitted as emergency contraception you can then continue to use this as your regular method of contraception – read more about this
  • The IUD is also known as ‘the coil’

Remember, emergency contraception does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Remember that some STIs can have no symptoms so it is important to get tested. 

What is emergency contraception?

There are two forms of emergency contraception, the emergency contraceptive pill (often referred to as the morning after pill) and the intrauterine device (IUD): 

  • The emergency contraceptive pill Levonorgestrel (LNG) can be taken within 96 hours (four days) of unprotected sex, however it is most effective within the first 72 hours (three days) of unprotected sex. Because of this, some services may only offer LNG up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.
  • The emergency contraceptive pill Ulipristal Acetate (UPA) can be taken within 120 hours (five days) of unprotected sex. 
  • The intrauterine device (IUD) is a small T-shaped plastic and copper device which is inserted into the uterus by a trained doctor or nurse within five days of unprotected sex, or five days after the earliest time you could have ovulated. The IUD is the most effective method of emergency contraception.

If you choose to the emergency contraceptive pill, you need to take it as soon as possible after you’ve had sex. This is important because the sooner you take it the more likely it is to work.

If you choose the IUD you can either continue to use this as your usual method of contraception, or have it removed by trained doctor or nurse after your next period.

Emergency contraception doesn’t cause an abortion, and the emergency contraceptive pill isn’t the same thing as the ‘abortion pill’. The pills used during an abortion end a pregnancy that's already happened. The emergency contraceptive pill prevents a pregnancy from happening.  

The emergency contraceptive pill Levonorgestrel (LNG) 

This type of emergency contraceptive contains a progestogen hormone called Levonorgestrel. 

It is most effective when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, but it can be used up to 96 hours (4 days) after. So it's important that you get advice on emergency contraception as soon as possible after having unprotected sex. Some services may only offer LNG up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

Brands: Different brands include Levonelle, Levonelle one step or Upostelle.

The emergency contraceptive pill Ulipristal Acetate (UPA) ellaOne

This type of emergency contraceptive contains Ulipristal Acetate, which works by stopping progesterone (a hormone women produce in their ovaries) from working normally and prevents pregnancy by delaying or preventing ovulation. If taken within five days (120 hours) of having unprotected sex, it is almost 98% effective at preventing pregnancy.

Brand: ellaOne is the only brand of this type of emergency contraceptive pill available in the United Kingdom.

The IUD

The IUD is the most effect method of emergency contraception.

The intrauterine device (IUD) is a small plastic and copper device that is fitted in your uterus (womb) by a specially trained doctor or nurse. It is over 99% effective, but it needs to be fitted within five days (120 hours) of unprotected sex or up to five days after the earliest time you could have released an egg (ovulated).

It takes about 15-20 minutes to fit the IUD and can be uncomfortable however you can have a local anaesthetic to help with this. If you can’t have the IUD fitted straight away and an appointment is made for this to happen at a different time, you may have to take the emergency contraceptive pill before you have the IUD fitted.

After having the IUD fitted you can continue to use this is as your usual method of contraception. If you want to have the IUD removed this will need to be done by a specially trained doctor or nurse after your next period.

 

Emergency contraceptive pill - how do I get it?

You can get the emergency contraceptive pill, for free from a range of services, including Brook, young people's services, contraception and sexual health clinics, your GP, minor injury units, walk-in clinics and some pharmacies. To find your nearest use our find a service tool

If you're 16 or over, you can also buy the Levonorgestrel pill from most pharmacies for around £25, and the ellaOne pill for around £35.

When you go to get the emergency contraceptive pill you will be asked some questions including:

  • whether you are taking any other medications
  • when you had unprotected sex
  • where you are in your menstrual cycle
  • whether you are taking a regular method of contraception and what this method is.

This is to check if the emergency contraceptive pill is the most suitable method of emergency contraception, or whether the IUD is more suitable.

Emergency contraceptive pill - does it always work?

The emergency contraceptive pill is very effective and it is more effective the sooner you take it after unprotected sex. Some things which can make it less effective are:

  • If you delay taking it, for example, the emergency contraceptive pill LNG is most effective when taken within the first 12 hours
  • If you vomit within three hours of taking LNG, or ellaOne
  • If you have had unprotected sex at another time, either since your last period or since taking the emergency contraceptive pill

If any of these things have happened it's a good idea to speak to a nurse or doctor and they can let you know what you need to do next.

Some medicines can reduce it's effectiveness, such as those used to treat epilepsy, HIV and TB and the complementary medicine St John's Wort. 

You should tell the nurse, doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any other medication – then the correct advice can be given to you and the most effective method of emergency contraception can be discussed.  

Emergency contraceptive pill - how do I know if it has worked?

If you took the emergency contraceptive pill LNG or ellaOne according to instructions and your next period starts as expected and is not lighter than normal, it is unlikely that you're pregnant.

If your period is lighter or shorter than usual or you miss your next period or withdrawal bleed (if you're on a combined contraceptive method such as the combined pill, contraceptive patch or the contraceptive vaginal ring) then you should see a nurse or doctor. They will recommend doing a pregnancy test, but to ensure an accurate result the test should be no earlier than three weeks since you had unprotected sex.

Emergency contraceptive pill - will it make me feel ill or sick?

It's unusual for the emergency contraceptive pill to make you sick. However if you are sick within three hours of taking it then you should speak to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist as soon as possible as the pill may not have been absorbed into your system. They may advise you to take another pill or consider the emergency IUD.

If you were sick more than three hours after taking the pill, it will have been absorbed by your body.

Emergency contraceptive pill - are there any side-effects?

There are no serious short or long-term side-effects from using the emergency contraceptive pill so it's not at all damaging to your health. 

Some women may experience some, or none, of these possible side effects:

  • Feeling a bit sick, dizzy or tired after taking it
  • May get headaches
  • Breast tenderness
  • Abdominal pains
  • Vomiting (a small number of women)
  • Irregular bleeding patterns

These side-effects are not harmful and do not happen to all women, however if you are concerned about anything seek advice from a doctor or nurse.

Emergency contraceptive pill - will it affect my periods?

It's quite common for the emergency contraceptive pills to disrupt your periods for a little while after taking it. Your period might come earlier or later than expected.

You may also experience some irregular bleeding between taking the pill and your next period. This is likely to do with the pill however it is always worth while discussing with your nurse or doctor. They may suggest that as well as taking the pill you also need an STI test. 

Emergency contraceptive pill - how many times can I use the EC pill?

There is no limit to the number of times you can take the emergency contraceptive pill during a lifetime. You can take the same type of emergency contraception pill more than once in any menstrual cycle if you need to. However, it may not be possible to take a different type of pill in the same cycle - it depends on which one has already been taken. To ensure you get the correct advice it is better to check with a doctor or nurse.

Although it's a good idea to use the emergency contraceptive pill if you've had unprotected sex, or if your contraception failed it is more effective to use another regular method of contraception to prevent pregnancy (e.g. combined pill, POP, implant, IUD, IUS, injection). This is because they are more effective than the emergency contraceptive pill at preventing pregnancy, more reliable, have fewer side-effects and protect you against pregnancy all of the time. 

Emergency contraceptive pill - can I still use my regular contraceptive method after taking the emergency contraceptive pill?

If you needed emergency contraception because the effectiveness of your regular contraceptive method has been reduced, it's important that you discuss this method with a doctor or nurse. You will need to use an additional contraceptive method, such as condoms for a certain number of days and depending on the type of emergency contraceptive pill you have been given you may have to wait before restarting your usual hormonal contraception method.

Sometimes the doctor or nurse can start a method of contraception for you at the same time as giving you the emergency contraceptive pill. The doctor or nurse will advise when should start using this method and when it will begin working. They will also advise how long you may need to use an additional method of contraception. 

If you have been given the emergency contraceptive pill LNG:

  • If you use the patch, vaginal ring or combined pill as your usual method of contraception, you should start your usual method of contraception within 12 hours of taking LNG. You will need to use an additional method of contraception such as condoms for the next seven days
  • If you are using the combined pill Qlaira you will need to use an additional method for nine days
  • If you use a progestogen-only pill you should start retaking the pill within 12 hours of taking LNG and then you will need to use an additional method such as condoms for two days
  • If you are restarting the contraceptive injection you will need to use an additional method for seven days

If you have been given the emergency contraceptive pill ellaOne

Emergency contraceptive pill - can I get it in advance?

If you're worried you're going to be in a situation where you won't easily be able to get emergency contraception (such as if you're going away) you can ask a doctor or nurse about getting the emergency pill in advance. This is normally only possible for LNG.

Emergency contraceptive pill - if I took it yesterday but had unprotected sex today, am I still covered?

No. The emergency contraceptive pill does not protect you from further unprotected sex. So you may need to take another course of emergency contraception. You should seek advice from a doctor or nurse.

Emergency contraception is not as effective as regular contraception, so it is important to get a regular method of contraception sorted if you are sexually active and want to prevent pregnancy. Find out further information on all methods of contraception.

The IUD - how do I get it?

The IUD must be fitted by a specially trained doctor or nurse and can be fitted at a range of services, including Brook, sexual health clinics and your GP. Find your nearest using our find a service tool.

It's always a good idea to phone a service before you visit, just to check when an IUD trained doctor or nurse will be available. 

You will need to have an internal examination (a doctor or nurse will look inside your vagina) to check the position and size of your uterus before the IUD can be fitted, and also to check for any signs of infection. Sometimes you may also be given antibiotics when the IUD is fitted to treat or prevent an infection.

It usually takes about 15-20 minutes to fit the IUD and it can be uncomfortable or painful for some women. The doctor or nurse may discuss painkiller tablets/using local anaesthetic to make the fitting more comfortable. At the appointment you will be asked to remove clothing from your lower half (e.g. trousers/skirt and underwear). You'll then have to lay on the bed with your legs open and knees bent. The doctor or nurse will then use a speculum to slightly widen your vagina to help guide and insert the IUD into your uterus. 

If you have an IUD fitted, you can then continue to use it for your regular contraception. 

The IUD - does it always work?

The IUD is more effective than the emergency contraceptive pill and it doesn’t interact with other medicines. The IUD is over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.

The IUD - how do I know if it has worked?

Your next period should come at about the time you would normally expect it. It maybe heavier than usual but that is quite normal.

If your period is lighter or shorter or you miss your next period or withdrawal bleed (if your usual method of contraception is a combined contraceptive method) then you should see a nurse or doctor. They will recommend doing a pregnancy test but to ensure an accurate result the test should be no earlier than three weeks since you had of unprotected sex.

The IUD - are there any side-effects?

  • There is a small risk of getting an infection after the IUD is inserted
  • There is a small risk of the IUD being pushed out or the IUD being displaced
  • There is a very small risk of tearing of the uterus
  • If you do become pregnant while you are using the IUD there is a small risk of ectopic pregnancy

The IUD - will it affect my periods?

After having the IUD fitted you may get some period-type pain and possibly some light bleeding for a few days afterwards.

If you continue to use the IUD as your regular method of contraception you may have irregular bleeding patterns during the first few months. For some women their periods are heavier, longer or more painful. Read more about using the IUD as your regular method of contraception.

The IUD - do I still need to use my regular contraceptive method after having the IUD fitted?

If you have the IUD fitted as emergency contraception and do not continue to use this as your regular method, you will need to use another method of contraception, such as condoms, or restart your usual method of contraception for at least seven days before having the IUD removed. It may be longer depending on the method of contraception you are using (your doctor or nurse will advise). 

The IUD - If I had it fitted yesterday but had unprotected sex today, am I still covered?

After having the IUD fitted as emergency contraception you can continue to use this as your regular method of contraception if you wish. 

The IUD must be removed by a trained doctor or nurse. If you are not going to continue to use the IUD you will need to use additional contraception, such as condoms, for the seven days before the IUD is taken out if you do not want to become pregnant. 

What do I do if had unprotected sex more than five days ago?

If you have had unprotected sex more than five days ago, it's a good idea to take a pregnancy test either:

  • As soon as you realise your period is late
  • If your period is shorter or lighter than usual
  • Or three weeks after having unprotected sex as this is approximately how long it will take for any pregnancy hormones to show up on a urine pregnancy test.

You can get a free pregnancy test a Brook service (if you are under 25), young person's service, contraception and sexual health clinic and some GPs. 

Can you use emergency contraception after having a baby?

You will not need to use emergency contraception for the first 21 days after giving birth.

  • LNG can be used from day 21 after giving birth and you can breastfeed after taking LNG. A small amount of the hormone may enter your milk but this is not thought to be harmful to your baby
  • Avoid breastfeeding for one week after taking ellaOne

Can you use emergency contraception after an abortion or miscarriage?

You can take the emergency contraceptive pill if you've had unprotected sex after an abortion or miscarriage. Speak to your doctor or nurse about using the IUD.