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Health Topics
Emergency Contraception

Emergency contraception is a safe, effective and responsible method of preventing pregnancy when regular contraception has failed, no contraception was used and/or in the case of sexual assault. This is also known as post-coital contraception and is available in the forms of emergency contraceptive pill and insertion of a copper intrauterine device. Emergency contraception will not prevent the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases so testing and treatment for these conditions may still be necessary.

The emergency contraception pill is available from your GP or family planning clinic and is also now available directly from pharmacies without a prescription from a Doctor. The intrauterine device can be fitted by your Doctor or family planning clinic but is not as widely available so it’s necessary to phone ahead for an appointment.

The emergency contraceptive pill contains a progestogen hormone which is similar to the natural progesterone woman produce in their ovaries. The pill should be taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. The pill works by preventing or delaying ovulation and possible preventing fertilisation. The emergency contraceptive pill stops a pregnancy before it is established. It does not work if already pregnant. Medical research and legal judgement are quite clear that emergency contraception prevents pregnancy and is not abortion.

The pill comes in a packet of one single tablet. It should be taken as soon as possible, preferably within 12 hours and no later than 72 hours after unprotected sex. The tablet works better the sooner you take it after having unprotected sex. If taken within 24 hours, the tablet will prevent up to 95% of pregnancies, 85% if taken between 25 and 48 hours and 58% if taken between 49 and 72 hours. The pill does not work if taken more than 72 hours after unprotected sex, if the patient vomits within three hours of taking the pill, if the pill is not taken as instructed or if the patient has had unprotected sex again since taking the pill.

There isn’t usually a need to see a Doctor or Nurse after taking the emergency contraceptive pill but a visit may be necessary if the next period is more than five days late, is unusually light or heavy or if there is any sudden or unusual pain in the lower abdomen. These could be signs that the emergency contraceptive pill has failed and that the patient is pregnant.

Almost every woman can use the emergency contraceptive pill. The Pharmacist, Doctor or Nurse should however be told about any medicines being taken or any concurrent illnesses. There are no serious short or long-term effects from using the emergency contraceptive pill. However, some women may feel sick, dizzy or tired, may get headaches, breast tenderness, diarrhoea or lower abdominal pain. These symptoms should get better within a few days. A very small number of women will vomit. If vomiting occurs within 3 hours of taking the pill another dose should be taken. An anti-sickness pill should be taken with the second dose. 

The emergency contraceptive pill does not offer protection from pregnancy until the next period. Your Doctor, family planning clinic or Pharmacist can give you advice on other contraceptive options. The next period after taking the emergency contraceptive pill may be different. Most women have a normal period at the expected time but some may have their period later or earlier than normal. There might also be some irregular bleeding or spotting until the next period. The emergency contraceptive pill has not been shown to affect a pregnancy or harm a developing foetus. A woman who thinks she is pregnant should seek advice as soon as possible. 

The emergency contraceptive pill can be taken more than once with no harmful effects, though it may disrupt your periods. If a woman is using emergency contraception regularly it would indicate that contraceptive choices need to be reviewed as the emergency contraceptive pill is not as effective as using other methods and is more expensive. 

If emergency contraception is needed because the woman forgot to take some of her regular contraceptive pills, the regular pill should be taken again within 12 hours of the last dose of emergency pill. An additional method of contraception, such as condoms, will be necessary until the regular contraceptive pill is effective again. This will vary depending on which type of pill is used. The Doctor, Nurse or Pharmacist can advise.

The other form of emergency contraception is the copper intrauterine device. A Doctor fits the device in the womb up to five days after unprotected sex. The Doctor may advise that the emergency contraceptive pill also be taken. The intrauterine device works by stopping the fertilisation of an egg or its implantation in the womb. The intrauterine device is the most effective method of emergency contraception. It will prevent 98% of pregnancies and can also offer ongoing contraception if this method is favoured. The intrauterine device may be suitable if the woman wants to use the most effective method of emergency contraception, is too late to take the emergency contraceptive pill (over 72 hours after unprotected sex), cannot take progestogen or wants to use the intrauterine device as an ongoing method of contraception.

More information is available from the Irish Family Planning Association. The association can be contacted by phone on +353 1 6074456 or by e-mail on

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© Copyright 2023 Chambers + Pharmacy,
Kevin McCormack B.Sc. Pharm. MPSI