Sometimes accidents happen, condoms split, several missed pills or no contraception is used. The emergency contraceptive pill, also known as the morning after pill, offers women the ability to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. This article will focus on how emergency contraceptive pills such as Levonelle and ellaOne work, where they're available from, how they should be taken and alternatives to emergency contraceptive pills.
Where can I get it from?
In the UK, there are currently two types of emergency contraceptive pills: Levonelle and ellaOne. EllaOne is a relatively new drug and not easily available. I will focus on ellaOne later in this article. The use of Levonelle is well established and is readily available from:
- Your GP
- Family planning clinics
- Accident and Emergency
How does it work?
Levonelle is a progesterone based hormone (a female sex hormone). We still don't know for certain the exact mechanism of how it works. The general consensus is that it inhibits ovulation (release of an egg from the ovaries); however, it may also prevent fertilization (fusing of sperm and egg) and possibly implantation. The emergency contraceptive pill does not cause an abortion. Technically speaking, an abortion can only occur once a fertilized egg has implanted it self into the lining of the womb.
Levonelle is extremely effective when taken correctly and has been shown to reduce the risk of pregnancy down to 1%.
How do I take it?
Levonelle is not suitable for everyone; it is contraindicated in the following cases:
- Prophyria (a very rare condition)
- Severe liver disease
- Previous ectopic pregnancy
- May not be suitable in conditions such as Crohn's disease
- Levonelle taken 0-24 hours after unprotected sex - 95% effective
- Levonelle taken 25-48 hours after unprotected sex - 85% effective
- Levonelle taken 49-72 hours after unprotected sex - 58% effective
Alternatives to Levonelle
If the time elapsed after unprotected intercourse is greater than 72 hours, or if Levonelle was not tolerated, then alternative emergency contraception must be considered to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. There are currently two options:
- Intrauterine emergency contraceptive device
EllaOne is a new emergency contraceptive which was given a license last year. Small trials including women from the UK, USA and Ireland have shown ellaOne to be effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy even after the 72 hour limit normally advised for Levonelle. This means the drug could be taken up to 120 hours (five days) after unprotected intercourse.
EllaOne is a prescription only medication. It will not be available over the counter until more is known about its long term safety profile.
The Intrauterine Emergency Contraceptive Device
The Intrauterine emergency contraceptive device, also known as the emergency IUD, is a small copper device that is inserted into the uterus (womb) via the vagina. It has the benefit of being effective up to five days after unprotected intercourse and can continue to be used as a regular contraceptive. The disadvantage is that it must be fitted, which would normally take place at a family planning clinic.
Long Term Contraception
Studies examining the emergency contraceptive found that many women went on to become pregnant in the next cycle, as they continued to have unprotected intercourse. This indicates the importance of considering long term, or continued contraception.
After taking Levonelle or ellaOne, it is wise to discuss continued contraception with your doctor or family planning clinic. Suitable methods for long term contraception may include:
- Combined oral contraceptive
- Progesterone only pill
- Progesterone injection (taken every 3 months)
- Contraceptive implant (inserted into the skin of the arm and lasts 3 years)
It is important to point out that having unprotected intercourse not only exposes you to the risk of an unwanted pregnancy, but also to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which are presently on the increase. You may not wish to get pregnant now, however chronic infections with bacteria, such as Chlamydia, can lead to infertility later in life as well as chronic pelvic inflammatory disease. Additionally, through unprotected intercourse with multiple partners, women can expose themselves to multiple strains of the Human papilloma virus, which increases the risk of cervical cancer. Please remember to use condoms. Keep well informed and read our article on STIs.
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Emergency contraceptive pills