Women's Health's Communications Team Leader Lorraine Pacey sorts fact from fiction when it comes to the emergency contraceptive pill.
Often referred to as the morning after pill, this type of emergency contraception can be taken after unprotected sexual intercourse to prevent unwanted pregnancy. It contains levonogestrol, a type of progestogen that stops pregnancy occurring by preventing ovulation and possibly by preventing fertilisation if ovulation has already taken place. A dose consists of either 1 x 1.5mg tablet or 2 x 0.75mg tablets.
Myth 1: You can only take the emergency contraceptive pill the 'morning after'.
Current Australian guidelines recommend that emergency contraceptive pills are taken within 72 hours (three days) of unprotected sex. Despite this recommendation, research suggests this form of contraception can be effective up to five days after unprotected intercourse. However, its effectiveness declines over time and by day five, it drops to about 50 per cent. For this reason, you should take the tablet/s as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse, and preferably within 24 hours.
Myth 2: You need to see your doctor to get it.
Emergency contraceptive tablets are available over the counter from most pharmacies in Australia. If the pharmacy you go to doesn't have them for any reason they should be able to refer you to one that does. The cost varies but in Queensland it is generally in the range of $20 - $50.
When the pharmacist is dispensing the tablet/s to you, they will probably ask you some questions, such as when you had unprotected sex and when you last had your period. If it is more than 72 hours since you had intercourse the pharmacist may refer you to your doctor to have an IUD inserted instead (see Myth 6 below).
Myth 3: It causes an abortion or a miscarriage.
Emergency contraception works by preventing pregnancy from occurring. It does not have any impact on an existing pregnancy. Therefore if you are already pregnant when you take emergency contraception it will not terminate the pregnancy. It's important to know that if you are pregnant and choose to continue the pregnancy, emergency contraception will not harm your baby in any way. If you choose to terminate the pregnancy you will need to have either a surgical or medical termination.
Some people confuse the emergency contraceptive pill with RU486 (mifepristone), a tablet used in medical termination (abortion). RU486 is not available over the counter in pharmacies in Australia; it must be prescribed by a doctor.
Myth 4: It will affect you fertility.
Regardless of how many times you take it, the emergency contraceptive pill will not affect your ability to have children in the future. However, it is important to be aware that if you have had unprotected sex you might be at risk of a sexually transmissible infection (STI) such as chlamydia. Chlamydia is a common infection that is easy to catch and is easily treated with antibiotics. However, it often doesn't have symptoms and is a major cause of infertility if left untreated. For this reason, it is important to have regular sexual health checks, particularly if you have had unsafe sex.
Myth 5: It will make you sick.
It is a common myth that taking the emergency contraceptive pill will cause vomiting. In fact, only one per cent of women who take emergency contraception will be sick. If you experience side effects they are generally mild and might include nausea, breast pain, dizziness, tiredness, headache and spot bleeding. These usually stop within two days. It's important to be aware that if you vomit within two hours of taking the emergency contraceptive pill it won't have been absorbed properly so you will need to take another dose.
Myth 6: The emergency contraceptive pill is the only type of emergency contraception available.
The term 'emergency contraception' can also refer to the insertion of a copper IUD (intra-uterine device) into the uterus. A copper IUD is the most effective form of emergency contraception – it can prevent 99 per cent of pregnancies if it's inserted within 5 days of unprotected sex. It also provides ongoing contraceptive benefits. However, it needs to be inserted by a health professional so it's not as accessible to women as the emergency contraceptive pill.
Watch our video 'Missed Pill'
Last updated: 3 September 2015
© Women’s Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Lorraine Pacey and reviewed by the Women’s Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2013 Issue 2.