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The “morning after pill” is a form of emergency birth control that can be used after you have had unprotected intercourse. Although most people know this form of contraception as the “morning after pill”, it is not one pill, but several. In addition, it does not need to be taken on the morning after sex. A more accurate name is “post coital” (after sex) birth control. It is not a substitute for regular birth control, since it is less effective and has more side effects, but it can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours (3 days) after having sex.
The morning after pill contains the same two hormones, estrogen and progesterone, as regular birth control pills, but in different amounts. The usual regimen is two pills taken as soon as possible after intercourse, and two pills taken 12 hours later. If you take the first dose within 24 hours after intercourse, it is 95% effective, but the effectiveness can drop off to 75% if you wait until 72 hours after intercourse. If you wait longer than that, the morning after pill is not effective in preventing pregnancy. In comparison, birth control pills taken regularly are more than 99% effective.
The morning after pill can work in one or more ways. If you have not ovulated (released an egg) yet, the morning after pill can prevent ovulation. This is similar to what happens if you take birth control pills regularly. If you have ovulated, the morning after pill can change the lining of the uterus, so a fertilized egg will not be able to implant and grow into an embryo. Some religious groups oppose the morning after pill for this reason, since it doesn’t prevent conception, but causes the fertilized egg to be expelled with a period.
The morning after pill has more side effects than regular birth control. Most women will have some nausea after taking the morning after pill and up to 25% of women may have vomiting as well. If you vomit up a dose of the morning after pill, you have to take another dose.
The morning after pill will not disrupt a pregnancy that has already implanted in the uterus. To date, it does not appear that the morning after pill causes harm to developing babies if the method fails and pregnancy occurs.
In many countries, the morning after pill is available without a prescription, but in the US a prescription is still required. You can get a prescription for the morning after pill (and often the pills themselves) in Planned Parenthood clinics, many college health centers and many health centers that offer free or reduced price care. Your personal doctor can also provide you with this form of emergency birth control.
The morning after pill provides no protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
If you take the morning after pill, you should follow up with a doctor in the next few weeks to be sure that it worked and you did not become pregnant.