What is the emergency contraception pill?

Emergency contraceptive pills can prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse, method failure, such as when a condom broke, or incorrect method use. Emergency contraception is, in essence a ‘second chance’ method.

Many questions arise about the use of emergency contraception. When it should be used, how safe it is, what its side effects are and what the differences are between various types, are some of the questions women ask.

'Emergency contraception can help reduce unplanned pregnancies, many of which result in unsafe abortion and take a large toll on women’s health” says Dr Paul van Look of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Every year unintended pregnancies lead to at least 20 million unsafe abortions, resulting in the death of some 80,000 women. The WHO has worked towards making emergency contraception more widely available and to increase the knowledge of both consumers and providers regarding this method.

The most widely used emergency contraceptives are regimens of birth control pills, which use the same hormonal ingredients found in regular oral contraceptives, but in higher doses.

Oral contraceptive pills containing both estrogen and progestin, or those that only contain a progestin can be used for emergency contraception. Emergency contraceptive pills do not affect a fertilized egg that has been implanted in the uterus. Hence, it cannot cause an abortion.

Emergency contraceptive pills should be started as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse, ideally no later than 72 hours. Research is examining whether this time frame can be extended.

In some countries, emergency contraception is referred to as "the morning- after pill," which can be misleading because a woman does not need to wait until morning to begin use - she should begin use as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. Some research has shown that the sooner she takes the pills, the more successful they will be in preventing pregnancy.

Emergency contraception should not be used as regular contraception because it is less effective than regular pill use and can result in unpleasant side effects, such as nausea.

(Information from the Health Systems Trust)

Visit Health24’s Contraception Section

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