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What is the morning-after pill?

The morning-after pill is a medication that a woman can take 3–5 days after having sexual intercourse without contraception to prevent a pregnancy.

People may require emergency contraception after sex for many reasons, including:

  • forgetting to use a primary method of birth control
  • condom breakage or slippage
  • failing to use the withdrawal method effectively
  • having unplanned or unintended sexual intercourse without contraception
  • sexual assault or rape.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 1.2 and 2.1 percent of women who took the morning-after pill containing levonorgestrel became pregnant, compared to 1.2 percent of women who took tablets containing ulipristal acetate.

The WHO adds that people must take these pills as soon as possible after sex without contraception — ideally, within 72 hours, or 3 days. While some of the pills may still work up to 120 hours, or 5 days, after intercourse without contraception, they become less effective.

There are different forms of the morning-after pill that contain the hormones levonorgestrel or ulipristal acetate.

The morning-after pill works primarily by preventing ovulation, which is when the ovary releases an egg, blocks fertilization of an egg, and stops a fertilized egg from implanting in the wall of the uterus. According to the Mayo Clinic, fertilization can occur up to 5 days after having intercourse.

The morning-after pill does not disrupt an established pregnancy so will not result in a pregnancy loss, or abortion. Also, it will not protect against pregnancy if a person has sex without contraception shortly after taking the pill. Anyone intending to have sexual intercourse should start or continue with regular methods of contraception.

Side effects

While the morning-after pill offers women a safe option to prevent pregnancy, it does have some disadvantages. These include mild side effects and no protection against sexually transmitted diseases

Temporary side effects of a morning-after pill include:

  • menstrual changes
  • breast tenderness
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • cramping
  • nausea
  • vomiting

The morning-after pill loses efficacy if vomiting occurs within 3 hours of consumption. Anyone who vomits after taking the morning-after pill should take an additional dose.

Frequent use of the morning-after pill can cause menstrual irregularities, such as irregular and unpredictable periods. If the menstrual cycle does not resume within 3-4 weeks of using the morning-after pill, take a pregnancy test.


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