Many women rely on the morning after pill to prevent pregnancy, but what exactly is it?

In this article we look into:

What is the morning after pill?

The morning after pill is a form of emergency hormonal contraception. It is taken after unprotected sex where no contraception has been used or, where contraception has failed   -such as a missed contraceptive pill or a broken condom.
It is commonly used by women to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

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How does the morning after pill work?

There are currently two types of emergency contraception available in the UK – Levonorgestrel, sold as Levonelle and Ulipristal, sold as EllaOne. Both are taken as a single dose tablet and work by stopping or delaying the release of an egg, preventing fertilisation and pregnancy.

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It should be noted that these medicines do not continue to protect you against becoming pregnant after further intercourse and are not intended to be used as a regular form of contraception. If you have unprotected sex anytime after taking the morning after pill there is a risk of pregnancy.

If you are regularly using the morning after pill it may be beneficial to be taking another form of regular contraception.  

When can I take the morning after pill?

Levonelle can be taken up to 72 hours – three days – after intercourse whereas EllaOne can be taken  120 hours – five days – after unprotected sex took place.The sooner the morning after pill is taken the more effective it is.

Most women can taken the morning after pill, this includes those under 16 years of age. All contraceptive services are confidential and records will only be kept with your permission or where absolutely necessary.

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How effective is the morning after pill?

Both tablets have high success rates when taken within 24 hours of sex but neither are 100% effective.
The success rate with EllaOne is irrespective of how long it is taken after sex, however, with Levonelle effectiveness decreases with time and if taken after 48 hours is only 58% effective. If you are in need of emergency contraception it is therefore very important that you take it as soon as you can.

There are some medicines that may make the morning after pill less effective.
These include:

  • St John’s Wort – A herbal based medicine used to treat symptoms of depression.
  • HIV drugs or immunosuppressant drugs – Ritonavir
  • Tuberculosis treatment – Rifabutin
  • Barbiturates and other medication used to prevent seizures.

If you are taking any of the above medicines it is advisable that you speak with your pharmacist or doctor before taking the morning after pill as you may be required to take two tablets rather than one.

After taking the morning after pill you should not take any medication that will delay your period further.
If you feel that your period is is more than seven days late and have taken the morning after pill, take a pregnancy test to be on the safe side. 

What are the side effects of the morning after pill?

Generally side effects of either morning after pill are minimal but like with most medicines some can occur.
Commonly these include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Changes to your next period – Your period may occur earlier, later or be more painful.
  • Nausea and vomiting – If you are sick within two hours of taking Levonelle, or within three hours of taking

 EllaOne, another dose will be required. This is to ensure that the pill has been properly ingested and is effective.  

Where can I get the morning after pill?

The morning after pill can be purchased from a pharmacy either online  or  in store. It can also be given on prescription from contraceptive clinics or your GP but you should bear in mind the time to get an appointment and whether this will be quick enough.

In some circumstances it may be appropriate to purchase the morning after pill in advance of unprotected sex, for example if you are going on holiday or if you think you will be unable to get hold of emergency contraception easily.  

For more information on this topic visit NHS – your contraception guide.