From Literary Women in Action

Sometimes our best plans fall apart. Like when a condom breaks, or comes off inside you. Or when we never get around to putting that condom on, despite our best intentions. For those moments, there’s emergency contraception, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 3 days of unprotected sex.

Using protection every time you have sex is very important (a combination of hormonal birth control and condoms is the best way to prevent both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases)—but, in the real world, it doesn’t always work out that way. Emergency contraception is a good back-up – this is how it works.

What Happens After Sex

  • If your condom broke, you forgot a pill or shot, or you got caught up and he came inside your vagina, his sperm immediately start their journey through your cervix, up into your uterus, through the fallopian tubes, hoping to find an egg, which your body only releases about once a month when it ovulates. When the sperm meets the egg, this is called fertilization.
  • After fertilization, the egg will move down the fallopian tubes to the uterus, where it will implant in the uterine wall. Your uterus waits for this every month, and if an egg doesn’t implant, it sheds the wall – this is your period.
  • Sperm can hang around for up to five days inside your body, waiting for an egg to be released.
  • For an animated illustration, watch Planned Parenthood’s “How Pregnancy Happens” video!


What Emergency Contraception Is

  • Emergency Contraception—sometimes called “the morning after pill” or “Plan B”—contains a medication called levonorgestrel, which is a progestin hormone (used in lower dosages in many birth control pills). This drug prevents pregnancy by either delaying ovulation, or preventing fertilization of an egg. How it works depends on exactly where you are in your cycle, and EC is most effective if you have not yet released an egg.
  • If taken within 24 hours of having unprotected sex, EC is about 95% effective in preventing pregnancy. Although emergency contraception can be taken up to 5 days after unprotected sex, its efficacy drops with time—so you want to take it as soon as possible, ideally within 24 or 72 hours.
  • There are a few different brands of EC on the market—including Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One DoseElla, and Afterpill. But they all contain the same medication, and work in the same way.
  • The copper IUD can also be used an emergency contraception, and is the most effective method – however, it requires a doctor to insert it, so if you want this option, call the Title X clinic nearest you immediately, or your private OB/GYN if you have insurance.


What Emergency Contraception Isn’t

  • An abortion. Emergency contraception is not to be confused with RU-486, the so-called “abortion pill,” which is a medication that ends pregnancy. EC can only prevent a pregnancy that hasn’t occurred yet.
  • A guarantee. If fertilization has already happened, taking emergency contraception will not end your pregnancy. (Remember, the sooner you take it, the likelier it is to be effective.)


Where and How to Get Emergency Contraception

  • Anyone can buy emergency contraception over the counter at drugstores and pharmacies, regardless of your gender or how old you are.
  • Most brands of EC cost about $40-$50 per dose, although family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood and local heath departments can sometimes offer discounts. Clinics like Planned Parenthood can also help you figure out if your health insurance covers EC (some plans do, though they may require that the medication be prescribed by a doctor). You can also check if your local Title X clinic or abortion clinic offers Plan B for free or sliding scale rates. You can find a map of pharmacies & clinics offering EC here.
  • There’s also a cheaper generic version, AfterPill, which you can buy online for $25—this is a good option to order ahead of time, just in case, since you won’t want to wait for its arrival after unprotected sex has occurred.


Other Things to Know

  • Emergency contraception is very, very safe—there have never been serious complications associated with its use (and it’s been used millions of times!).
  • However, if you find yourself taking emergency contraception regularly, you may want to consider another form of birth control, since some people do experience side effects from EC, and planning ahead with pills, the ring, an IUD, or another form of birth control can provide better protection (and peace of mind!).
  • You may experience some mild side effects, such as nausea, dizziness, or changes in your next menstrual period. If you throw up within 2 hours of taking emergency contraception, it won’t work and you’ll need to take it again. If you are worried about the side effects, think of it this way: EC is a one-time dose of a higher level of a hormone your body makes naturally. Pregnancy is a nine-month dose of those same hormones at even higher levels.
  • Your period may be a few days early or a few days late after taking emergency contraception. If your period is a full week late, take a pregnancy test.
  • Emergency contraception may be less effective if you have a higher Body Mass Index—in which case other options, such as ella or a copper IUD , might be right for you. Planned Parenthood has a helpful quiz to help you figure out which choice makes the most sense for your body.
  • If it’s too late for you to take emergency contraception (more than 5 days after unprotected sex), there’s not much you can do except wait for your period, and take a pregnancy test if it’s a few days late. If you’re freaking out about symptoms you may think indicate pregnancy, this guide from Scarleteen can help you identify what they might be.


Your best bet is to use reliable birth control every time you have sex. But it’s also important to know your back-up plan, and where to find it.