Emergency contraception

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Emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy after you’ve had sex. It can be used when you’ve had unprotected sex, missed a pill, or a condom has burst. It should never be used as an alternative to normal contraception.

There are 2 types:

  • emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes called the morning after pill)
  • copper coil (IUD)

Emergency contraception is effective at preventing pregnancy if it’s used soon after unprotected sex. 1-3% of people who take an emergency contraceptive pill get pregnant. An emergency IUD is 10 times more effective than emergency contraceptive pills. It’s thought that ellaOne is more effective than Levonelle.

Emergency contraception doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

There are no serious side effects of using emergency contraception.

Emergency contraception does not cause an abortion.

Emergency contraception self-help guide

Find out more about how to get emergency contraception and where to get it.

Emergency contraceptive pill

There are 2 emergency contraceptive pills:

  • Levonelle – you must take this within 72 hours (3 days) of having unprotected sex
  • ellaOne – you can take this within 120 hours (5 days) of having unprotected sex

It’s thought that ellaOne is more effective than Levonelle. The sooner you take Levonelle, the more effective it is.

Both Levonelle and ellaOne work by preventing or delaying a woman from releasing an egg (ovulation).

Levonelle or ellaOne can make you feel sick, dizzy or tired, or give you a headache, tender breasts or abdominal pain.

Both pills can make your period earlier or later than usual.

If you vomit within 2 hours of taking Levonelle, or 3 hours of taking ellaOne, it may not work. Get medical advice as you’ll need to take another dose or have an IUD fitted.

Who can use the emergency pill?

Most women can use the emergency contraceptive pill.

This includes women who can’t use hormonal contraception, such as the combined pill and contraceptive patch. Girls aged under 16 years old can also use the emergency contraceptive pill.

You shouldn’t take ellaOne if you:

  • are allergic to any of the components of the drug
  • have severe asthma that is treated with steroid tablets (glucocorticoids)
  • have certain rare hereditary problems with lactose metabolism
  • are taking liver enzyme-inducing medication

Breastfeeding

Levonelle can be taken while breastfeeding. Small amounts of the hormones in the pill may pass into your breast milk, but this is not harmful.

You should not breastfeed for 1 week after taking ellaOne.

What if I’m taking other medicines?

ellaOne will not work if you’re already taking:

  • the herbal medicine St John’s Wort
  • some medicines used to treat epilepsy
  • some medicines used to treat HIV
  • some medicines used to treat tuberculosis (TB)
  • medication such as omeprazole (an antacid) to make your stomach less acidic

If you’re taking one of these medicines, you can take Levonelle but you may need a higher dose. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise on this.

Most antibiotics do not interfere with the emergency pill. However, some antibiotics used to treat or prevent meningitis or tuberculosis (TB) can affect ellaOne.

If you want to check that your medicines are safe to take with the emergency contraceptive pill, ask your GP or a pharmacist. You should also read the information leaflet that comes with your medicines.

The copper coil (IUD) as emergency contraception

An IUD is a small T-shaped plastic and copper device that’s inserted into your womb (uterus) by a specially trained doctor or nurse. It may prevent an egg from implanting in your womb or being fertilised.

It can be fitted up to 5 days after having unprotected sex.

If you use the IUD as emergency contraception, it has to stay in for 3 weeks and can then be removed. It can be left in as your regular contraceptive method.

Who can use the IUD?

Most women can use an IUD, including women who have never been pregnant and those who are HIV positive. Your GP or clinician will ask about your medical history to check if an IUD is right for you.

You should not use an IUD if you have:

  • an untreated STI or a pelvic infection
  • certain abnormalities of the womb or cervix
  • any unexplained bleeding from your vagina – for example, between periods or after sex

Women who have a heart condition should speak to their GP or cardiologist before having an IUD fitted.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

You should not use the IUD if there’s a risk that you may already be pregnant.

The IUD can be used safely if you’re breastfeeding.

What are the side effects of the IUD?

Side effects are rare but can include:

  • pain
  • infection
  • damage to your womb
  • the IUD coming out of your womb (expulsion)
What if I’m taking other medicines?

The emergency IUD will not react with any other medication.

Contact a doctor or nurse if:

You’ve used emergency contraception and:

  • you’re concerned about any symptoms
  • you think you might be pregnant
  • your next period is more than 7 days late
  • your period is shorter or lighter than usual
  • you have any sudden or unusual pain in your lower abdomen

Sudden or unusual pain in your lower abdomen (stomach) could be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy. This is rare but serious and needs immediate medical attention.

Where can you get emergency contraception?

You can get the emergency contraceptive pill and the IUD for free from:

  • a GP practice that provides contraception (some GP practices may not provide the IUD)
  • sexual health services

You can also get the emergency contraceptive pill free from:

The doctor or nurse you see may ask:

  • when you have had unprotected sex in your current menstrual cycle
  • the date of the first day of your last period and the usual length of your cycle
  • details of any contraceptive failure (such as how many pills you may have missed and when)
  • if you’ve used any medications that may affect your contraception

If you’re aged 13 or over, you can get contraception from most pharmacies in Scotland, usually free of charge.

If you are not eligible for NHS Scotland services, you can buy the emergency contraceptive pill from most pharmacies. The cost varies, but it will be around £30 to £35.

British Sign Language (BSL)

Information about emergency contraception is available in British Sign Language (BSL) from SignHealth. Services available may vary by location.

Bridging (short-term) contraception

You can get an initial 3-month supply of the progestogen-only pill as well as emergency contraception at pharmacies. Speak to your pharmacy for further information.

Contraception for the future

Using a regular method of contraception can lower the risk of unplanned pregnancy.

Read about the different types of contraception

Last updated:
30 December 2022