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Everything you need to know about emergency contraception


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Fresher’s week at university can be one of the most exciting times of your life. There’s endless nights out, lots of booze and new friends. But it’s important to know what to do if you find yourself in a situation with someone that may require you to take emergency contraception.

Below is everything you need to know if you find yourself in this situation, courtesy of sexual health charity FPA.

Remember there is no need to be embarrassed

Remember that asking for emergency contraception is a responsible choice, and should not make you feel embarrassed. It can be uncomfortable talking to someone about a contraception mishap, but pharmacists, doctors and nurses are aware that is it a sensitive topic. The most important thing is that you handle the situation quickly and responsibly.

Know your options

Although many think that a pill is their only choice, there are actually three choices of emergency contraception:

  • An emergency contraceptive pill containing levonorgestrel – there are different brands but they all work in the same way - can be taken up to three days (72 hours) after sex
  • An emergency contraceptive pill containing ulipristal acetate – ellaOne is the only brand in the UK – can be taken up to five days (120 hours) after sex - although emergency contraceptive pills should be taken as soon as possible after sex for the best chance of working successfully.  
  • An emergency intrauterine device (IUD) – can be fitted up to five days after sex, or up to five days after the earliest time you could have released an egg.
IUD impacts can stop ovulation, fertilisation of an egg, or a fertilised egg from implanting in the uterus (womb).

Remember emergency contraception does not cause an abortion

Emergency contraceptive pills work by inhibiting or delaying ovulation. They work to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex by postponing ovulation, if it has not already happened. This means that the sperm waiting in the fallopian tubes will be unable to meet an egg and fertilise it. This is similar to regular contraceptive pills, which also work by preventing egg release.

Taking emergency contraceptive pills as soon as possible after unprotected sex gives the best chance of success.

The IUD on the other hand works two ways:

  • Stop the sperm reaching an egg – the copper is unfriendly to sperm. It does this by preventing sperm from surviving in the cervix, uterus or fallopian tube.
  • Effects the endometrium so that any fertilised egg is prevented from implanting in the uterus.
Where you can get emergency contraception from?

You can get emergency contraception for free from the following places, but they may not all supply ellaOne or fit IUDs:

  • Any general practice that provides contraceptive services.
  • A contraception clinic.
  • Any young person’s service or Brook clinic.
  • Any sexual health clinic.
  • Some genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics.
You can also get emergency contraception containing levonorgestrel free from:

  • Most NHS walk-in centres (in England only)
  • Most pharmacies (there may be age restrictions)
  • Most NHS minor injuries units
  • Some hospital accident and emergency departments (phone first to check).
Places where you can buy emergency contraception containing levonorgestrel are:

  • Most pharmacies if you are 16 years old or over
  • Some fee-paying clinics
If you buy emergency contraception containing levonorgestrel from a pharmacist it will cost around £25, however a pharmacist may not be able to sell it to you if:

  • It has been more than 72 hours since you had unprotected sex
  • You have had unprotected sex more than once in the menstrual cycle
  • You are taking certain prescribed or complementary medicines
  • You have certain health conditions
Places where you can buy ellaOne are:

  • Most fee-paying clinics
  • Most pharmacies
Knowing the side effects

  • There are no serious short or long-term side-effects, although some women may feel sick, dizzy or tired, or may get headaches, breast tenderness or abdominal pain
  • A very small number will vomit
  • It may alter your period
Most side-effects will go away within a few days.

Women may also get:

  • Painful periods
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle and back pain
  • Some women may get a period-type pain and light bleeding for a few days after an IUD is fitted
  • There is a very small chance of getting an infection during the first 20 days after it is fitted. If you already have an infection, you may be given antibiotics
  • It is not common but the IUD can be pushed out or it can move
  • There is also a very small risk that it might go through your uterus
Signs which may suggest your emergency contraception hasn’t worked

If you have taken emergency contraception, it is unlikely that you will be pregnant, but it is best to do a pregnancy test if:

  • You have not had a normal period within three weeks of taking emergency contraception containing levonorgestrel, ellaOne or having the emergency IUD inserted
  • You do not have a bleed when you have the seven-day break from using the combined pill, contraceptive patch or the contraceptive vaginal ring, or when you take the placebo tablets with EveryDay combined pills
If it has been three weeks after the last time you had unprotected sex, a pregnancy test will be accurate.

Be aware of the advice that is available

After taking emergency contraception periods can be early or late, but everyone is different. If you are experiencing pain or unusual symptoms, it is best to contact a doctor or nurse.

The Sexual Health Information Line is available from Monday to Friday 9am-8pm and at weekends from 11am-4pm for confidential advice and information on all aspects of sexual health. You can call them on 0300 123 7123.

For additional information and advice on sexual health you can visit

There is also information available for young people at

University medical centres and pharmacy staff will be trained in providing advice and information, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need it.

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