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Emergency Contraception – Introduction

Emergency Contraception – Introduction

The emergency contraceptive pill, also known as the morning-after pill or post-coital pill, can be used by a woman to prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex.

It can also be used if another method of contraception has failed, for example if a condom splits or you have forgotten to take one of your contraceptive pills.

The emergency contraceptive pill can be used up to three days (72 hours) after having unprotected sex. However, the sooner it is taken, the more likely it is to prevent pregnancy.

It can be taken more than once during your menstrual cycle, but does not protect you against pregnancy during the rest of your menstrual cycle and is not intended to be a regular form of contraception. Using the emergency contraceptive pill repeatedly can severely disrupt your natural menstrual cycle.

The emergency contraceptive pill does not protect against sexually transmitted infections.

How effective is it?

The effectiveness of the emergency contraceptive pill depends on how soon you take it after sex. Taking it within 12 hours of having sex gives the best chance of preventing a pregnancy.

The emergency contraceptive pill is:

  • 95% effective if taken within 24 hours of having sex
  • 85% effective if taken within 24-48 hours of having sex
  • 58% effective if taken within 48-72 hours of having sex

How the emergency contraceptive pill works

The emergency contraceptive pill prevents the ovaries releasing an egg (ovulation). It also:

  • thickens the mucus in the neck of the womb, so it is harder for sperm to penetrate into the womb and reach an egg
  • thins the lining of the womb, so there is less chance of a fertilised egg implanting into the womb and being able to grow

Norlevo or Levonelle are the brands of emergency contraceptive pill available on the Irish market. While the composition of both brands is identical, currently only Norlevo is available without prescription, after a consultation with your pharmacist. It can be taken up to three days (72 hours) after unprotected sex and can be bought from your local pharmacy if you are over 16 years of age.

Most women can use the emergency contraceptive pill. This includes women who are breastfeeding and women who cannot usually use hormonal contraception, such as the combined pill and contraceptive patch.

However, the emergency contraceptive pill may interact with some medicines (see below).

Breastfeeding women

The emergency contraceptive pill can be taken when breastfeeding. Although small amounts of the hormones contained in the pill may pass into your breast milk, it is not thought to be harmful to your baby.

Pregnancy

There is no evidence that the emergency contraceptive pill harms a developing baby. If you are pregnant when you take the emergency contraceptive pill, or you become pregnant after taking it, you might have a slightly increased risk of developing an ectopic pregnancy. You can discuss this further with your GP.

When to avoid it

The emergency contraceptive pill can interact with medicines used to treat epilepsy, HIV and tuberculosis, and with the complementary medicine St John’s Wort. These types of drugs are called enzyme inducers.

The dose of Norlevo may need to be increased if you are using this medication, and this would need to be determined by a doctor.  It is always best to check with your doctor whether any of your medication may interact and change the effectiveness of the emergency pill.

What if I am sick after taking the emergency contraceptive pill?

You may vomit after taking the emergency contraceptive pill. Vomiting within three hours of taking the emergency contraceptive pill may mean that it has not been fully absorbed into your bloodstream. If this happens, there is a chance it will not work properly.

If you vomit within three hours of taking the emergency contraceptive pill, seek medical advice as soon as possible from your GP or a sexual health nurse or pharmacist. You may be advised to take a second emergency contraceptive pill.

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