Everything you wanted to know about the morning after pill

Dr Joanna Pike

Reviewed by Dr Joanna Pike on Mar 23, 2020
Written by Jennifer Walker.

Accidents occasionally happen, and the morning after pill can be helpful for when they do. Maybe the condom broke, you forgot to take your contraceptive pill, or you got carried away in the moment, either way, the morning after pill can give some added protection against pregnancy. But what is the morning after pill, how does it work, when can you take it and where can you get it? You may have many questions about the morning after pill or other forms of emergency contraception. Which is why we’re here to answer the most frequently asked questions.

1.
What is the morning after pill?

The morning after pill is a form of emergency contraception that is taken orally after unprotected sex or when contraception has failed. There are two types of pills. The first kind contains levonorgestrel, a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone. The second type is ulipristal acetate. You can get both types without a prescription at your local pharmacy. You can also get morning after pills from some sexual health or family planning clinics.

2.
How does the morning after pill work?

Levonorgestrel works by delaying the release of an egg, so the sperm cannot fertilise it because they can only survive up to 5 days inside the female body. Ulipristal acetate works by stopping progesterone from functioning normally and also prevents or delays the release of an egg.  


However, neither is a guaranteed method for avoiding pregnancy: if you have already ovulated before you take the morning after pill, it won’t work. It also does not end a pregnancy if the egg has already been fertilised. The morning after pill is not an abortion pill and will not harm an existing pregnancy.  

3.
When can you take the morning after pill?

Because the morning after pill works by stopping an ovary from releasing an egg, it’s best to take it as soon as you can. It’s recommended to take levonorgestrel within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Ulipristal acetate can be taken up to 120 hours after unprotected sex but effectiveness decreases the longer you wait – read more about this below.  

4.
How effective is the morning after pill?

Studies showed that around 1.2% of women who take ulipristal acetate-based emergency contraceptives after unprotected sex will become pregnant1. Whereas 1.2 to 2.1% of women taking levonorgestrel-based pills would get pregnant2. The effectiveness of any emergency contraceptive pill decreases the longer you wait to take it, along with other factors like a higher body mass index (BMI).

5.
How can I get the morning after pill?

Morning after pills are available over the counter from a pharmacist, without a prescription. 

6.
What if it doesn’t work?

Since the morning after pill works by delaying ovulation, if you’ve already ovulated the morning after pill won’t stop you conceiving. It won’t terminate a fertilised egg or prevent it from implanting. 

If you are pregnant, there are options you can discuss with your doctor. 

7.
Are there any side effects for the morning after pill?

As with any medication, there are some known side effects of the morning after pill, which you might or might not experience, including:

  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Fatigue 
  • Dizziness 
  • Breast tenderness 
  • Headaches 
  • Spotting between periods 
  • Heavier menstrual bleeding 
  • Cramps or lower abdominal pain.

8.
Are there any other emergency contraception methods?

Other than the two types of pills, you also have the IUD (intrauterine device) as an alternative. This small device (IUD) is a T-shaped plastic and copper device a doctor or nurse will insert into your womb. Copper is released and stops the egg from implanting in the uterus and prevents it from being fertilised. It can be used as an emergency form of contraception up to five days after unprotected sex and can be left in as a long-term mode of contraception. Out of all the emergency forms of contraception, this is the most effective. Fewer than 1% of women using the IUD get pregnant3

Most women can use the IUD, even if breastfeeding3.  However in rare cases there are some rare side effects such as:  

  • Pain 
  • Infection
  • Womb damage
  • The IUD ejecting itself from the womb
  • Heavier, more painful periods. 

The morning after pill is best used in an emergency when your regular contraception fails, and should not be used as a regular method of contraception. There is no guarantee you won’t get pregnant after taking the morning after pill, so you may want to take a pregnancy test if you miss your period or you’re worried you’re pregnant.