When can I use emergency contraception?

Written by Rachel Giuliani

The short answer: the sooner, the better. Here are some of your EC options.

You’ve got about five days to take action after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. We'll go over three methods of emergency birth control and how to access them below.

But first, a quick lesson in biology: sperm can live for up to six days inside the body, and if you’re ovulating during that time, you could get pregnant. So if you’ve had unprotected sex, taking emergency contraception as soon as possible afterward is your best bet for avoiding pregnancy. If you’re already pregnant, emergency contraception won’t terminate a pregnancy.

There are a few different methods of emergency birth control to be aware of. If you can go to your doctor, that’s where you should start—they might have suggestions or treatments that aren’t on this list. Another good place to start is this quiz from Planned Parenthood. Whatever you choose, the sooner you do it, the more likely it is to successfully prevent pregnancy.

Since time is a factor, if you’re sexually active, you might want to consider purchasing one of the two pill options, so you can have something on hand, just in case.

‘Morning After’ Pill - Levonorgestrel

The basics: more effective the sooner you take it, less effective if you weigh over 165 lbs, available over the counter without a prescription.

The details: Commonly called the ‘morning after’ pill, this has a lot of different brand names, like Plan B, Preventeza, and My Way. Its effectiveness decreases over time, so it’s suggested to take it within 72 hours of unprotected sex, but it can work up to five days later. Recent studies have shown it’s less effective for people over 165 lbs. If you are under 165 lbs, this is probably the easiest option to purchase beforehand just in case you need it. Like most birth control, it can be a little pricey without insurance, but there are many programs available to help you get it for low or no cost. With insurance, it’s often covered completely or with a small co-pay.

‘Morning After’ Pill - Ulipristal acetate

The basics: effective for up to five days, needs a prescription, medium cost.

The details: There’s only one brand available in the US, Ella, and you can get a prescription online through HeyDoctor or other places like Prjkt Ruby that offer next-day delivery online.

Unlike a levonorgestrel pill, this one is just as effective on day five as it is on day one. You should only take ella once per cycle, and a common side effect is delaying or changing your menstrual cycle. If you’re already on hormonal birth control or breastfeeding, Ella isn’t a good choice. Like other birth control options, it can be a little pricey, but there are also programs available to get it at low or no cost. With insurance, it’s often covered completely or with a small co-pay.

Copper IUD

The basics: most effective, longest lasting, most scheduling needed, most potentially painful, potentially highest cost.

The details: A copper IUD can be inserted up to 5 days after unprotected sex, and will be extremely effective in protecting against pregnancy. Plus, it can prevent pregnancy for up to ten years after insertion. There’s only one brand of copper IUD available in the US: ParaGuard. You’ll need a doctor to insert it, and the insertion can cause a few days’ worth of pain or discomfort. An IUD could be pretty costly, especially if you don’t have insurance, but there are many programs to help people afford this treatment at low or no cost. If you go this route, make sure to tell the doctor’s office that it’s for emergency contraception so you can get scheduled as soon as possible.

The bottom line

Emergency birth control is safe to use, but it can cause side effects like bleeding or cramping, and it can often alter your menstrual cycle.

It’s also not as effective as contraception that you use before or during sex. If you're looking for preventative birth control we can help!

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HeyDoctor, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.