Emergency contraception – what are my options?

Reviewed: May 7, 2021
morning after pill emergency contraception
Okay, so you’ve had unprotected sex? Or, the condom broke, or you missed your pill? These things happen and if you want to prevent pregnancy then there are things you can do. You also might be worried about sexually transmitted diseases too.

So what should you do when you have (unintentionally) had unprotected sex and you are not looking to get pregnant? Here, The Lowdown gives you everything you need to know about emergency contraception and can do, should the moment occur.

Emergency contraception – what should I do?

The morning after pill or the emergency contraceptive pill can be taken after having unprotected sex and can help reduce the risk of pregnancy. According to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the morning after pill is 95% effective if taken within the first 24 hours of having unprotected sex, 85% if taken within 48 hours and 58% if taken from 48-72 hours after sex. Therefore, it is best to get in there as soon as possible if you want to prevent pregnancy.

If you’re on a contraceptive pill already but missed it and don’t want to take the risk, you can still take the morning after pill at the same time. It’s important to take your missed pill as soon as you remember though, so try and take it as soon as you can.

There are two main types of emergency contraception pills, Levonelle and elleOne, although some pharmacies like Boots or Superdrug may have their own unbranded pills but will contain the same ingredients as the two.

Levonelle contains levonorgestrel which is a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone. By taking this pill, the release of an egg will either be stopped or delayed. Levonelle must be taken within 72 hours – or three days – of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.

The second type of emergency contraception pill is ellaOne. This pill contains ulipristal acetate, which stops progesterone from working normally. This also works by stopping or delaying the release of an egg.

ellaOne must be taken within 120 hours of having unprotected sex.

Where can I get emergency contraception?

You can phone up your GP practice and ask if they hand out emergency contraception. If not, contraceptive and sexual health clinics give them out for free and some young people’s clinics also offer them.

Some chemists or pharmacies offer the morning after pill for free too but some you have to pay for. They don’t always say online if they do charge or not but Googling ‘emergency contraception near me’ and then phoning up to ask the price could be a start.

Pharmacies like Boots and Superdrug also offer both pills at a price for either £26 for Levonelle or £35 for ellaOne. Their own, non-branded pills are slightly cheaper though.

Emergency contraception side effects

Taking the morning after pill is very safe but doctors do warn the potential of feeling sick. If you do throw up within two hours of taking the pill, then you will need to take it again as it might not have yet absorbed into your system.

Other side effects include breast tenderness, fatigues, headaches, dizziness or lower abdominal pain. Taking the pill may trigger your period to start early or late, usually by one week or so. If you don’t get your period within three to four weeks of taking the morning after pill then take a pregnancy test. If you’re on a combined contraceptive pill where you don’t usually have a period and have taken the morning after pill, you could also have a bleed after taking it.

Option two – the coil

The intrauterine device (IUD) or the copper coil is a small, T-shaped device that is put into your womb by a doctor or nurse. The copper is released to stop the egg implanting in your womb or from being fertilised.

The IUD is extremely effective as a method of emergency contraception with less than one per cent of women getting pregnant after having it in following unprotected sex. In fact, according to the NHS, it is more effective at preventing pregnancy than the emergency pill.

Where can I get the coil?

You can get the coil fitted at sexual health and contraceptive clinics. It is worth phoning your GP practice up and asking if they offer it too. Some accident and emergency departments offer it, most walk-in centres do and some young people’s clinics offer it. Similar to the morning after pill, it is worth phoning up your local services first to see if they offer it and to then book an appointment if so.

The coil fitting

I’m sure you’ve heard that having the coil fitted is a painful experience and it probably won’t be the best few minutes of your life but once it’s in, you won’t have to think about it for ten years. Before inserting it, your doctor or nurse will check the size and position of your uterus, clean your cervix and vagina with an antiseptic liquid, look for any problems and then line up your cervix with your uterus.

They will then fold down the ‘arms’ of the ‘T’ shape and place the device into an applicator tube, before inserting it through your cervix and into your uterus. Once in place, the ‘arms’ will release and the tube can then be removes. The IUD also has a string which hangs down into your cervix and vagina – the doctor or nurse will trim this so only a short amount will stat there.

Once inserted, you may want to (or be asked to) stay at the clinic for a while after to make sure you’re feeling okay. Getting the IUD fitted in can hurt, and the process may be uncomfortable. You may feel sick afterwards or have cramps like period pain so it’s best to stay just to make sure you’re okay.

During the first three months, it is advised that you feel that the string is still coming out of your cervix. Insert a finger into the vagina and reach to the hard area (cervix). You should then be able to feel the string.

The copper coil works immediately, so you don’t need to use other forms of contraception but it is advised you wait 24 hours after getting it inserted to allow your body to heal.

Side effects of the coil

It is likely that you’ll have some cramps and spotting after the IUD is fitted in. Then, mild cramps and bleeding can last from three to six months, similar to period pain. Your periods may also be heavier for the first few months and then could go back to your normal. Sometimes, females experience heavier periods or lighter ones, so it just depends on how your body reacts.

Complications after having an IUD fitted are rare, but could include: pain, infection, damage to the womb, the IUD coming out or more painful periods.

To summarise

It’s your choice whether to opt for the copper IUD or the emergency contraception pill, as long as you’re comfortable and safe. These things happen, just make sure whatever you do is the right choice for you.

This guide was brought to you by The Lowdown. We are the world’s first contraception review platform, providing real-life experiences from thousands of reviews collected from our community of men and women.

Why not leave us a review of your contraceptive experience? Whether you’ve got good things to say about the Mirena coil or had trouble with implant removal, we want to hear about it! Tell us about your experience and help people around the world find the right method for them.