If you’re not looking to have a baby anytime soon, using some form of birth control to protect yourself from unintended pregnancy should be pretty much non-negotiable. But accidents do happen, which is where emergency contraception comes into play.
Emergency contraception (EC, often called the morning-after pill) can help protect you from pregnancy if you had sex without birth control or if your birth control method failed. But there can be confusion surrounding the practicalities of using EC, like…what happens if you take the morning-after pill and then have unprotected sex? Does it offer preemptive protection so you don’t have to worry about pregnancy? Or do you have to take another dose of EC for maximum defense against getting pregnant unexpectedly? We talked to ob/gyns for the answer.
- Here’s a quick primer on how the morning-after pill works.
- If you take the morning-after pill and then have unprotected sex, you’re cutting into the usual window of effectiveness.
- Explore Methods
- Myth 1: There’s only one ECP option—and it’s hard to get.
- Myth 2: ECPs cause abortion.
- Myth 3: I partied last night, so taking ECPs now is dangerous.
- Myth 4: If I take ECPs today, I’m covered if we have unprotected sex again tomorrow.
- Myth 5: ECPs will mess up your fertility if you take them too many times.
- How Many Times Can You Actually Take Plan B? Asking For a Friend
- The 4 Biggest Misconceptions About Plan B
- It’s Basically the Same as Medical Abortion Pills
- You’ll Become Infertile if You Take It Too Much
- If You Took Plan B This Morning, You Can Forgo a Condom Tonight
- Sara Kloepfer
- Myth #1: Plan B is an abortion pill
- Myth #2: You have to take Plan B within 24 hours for it to work
- Myth #3: Plan B works for everybody
- Myth #4: It’s a pain to buy Plan B
- Myth #5: Plan B has awful side effects
- Myth #6: If you took Plan B in the morning, you don’t need to use protection that night
- Myth #7: You’ll become infertile if you take Plan B too much
- Emergency contraception: dispelling the myths and misperceptions
- Elizabeth Westley a & Anna Glasier b
- The £3 morning-after pill and emergency contraceptive myths
- ‘A very affordable type of treatment’
- Myths surrounding emergency contraception
Here’s a quick primer on how the morning-after pill works.
The FDA has approved two types of pills for use specifically as emergency contraception: ulipristal acetate (Ella) and levonorgestrel (Plan B One-Step and various generic forms, according to the Mayo Clinic). Both are often referred to with the catchall term “morning-after pill.” (There are other forms of emergency contraception—the copper IUD and taking a large dose of combination birth control pills at once—but for the purposes of this discussion we’re going to focus on the drugs known as the morning-after pill.)
Ulipristal acetate and levonorgestrel both primarily work by preventing or delaying ovulation. If neither of your ovaries releases an egg, there’s nothing for sperm to fertilize. Or if ovulation is delayed long enough that there’s no longer any sperm in your system when you do release an egg, same result: You don’t get pregnant. These medications may also make your endometrial lining a less hospitable place for a fertilized egg to implant so that even if sperm does manage to fertilize an egg, it can’t receive nutrients to sustain a pregnancy. (The efficacy of these mechanisms may be lower for high-BMI people. You can read more about that here.)
But—we cannot stress this enough—if a fertilized egg has already implanted in your uterus, emergency contraception will not stop or harm the pregnancy. Although they’re sometimes confused for each other, emergency contraception is not the same thing as the abortion pill. Also known as a medical abortion, the abortion pill does actually terminate pregnancies. The morning-after pill does not.
If you take the morning-after pill and then have unprotected sex, you’re cutting into the usual window of effectiveness.
“These medications work best when taken as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse,” Melissa Goist, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
Levonorgestrel-based emergency contraception like Plan B is most effective when you can take it within 72 hours after having unprotected sex, while ulipristal acetate (Ella) has the same efficacy for five days after you have unprotected sex, after which point its potency drops and it is not recommended.
The key word here is “after.” Taking emergency contraception before you have unprotected sex is not going to offer maximum protection going forward because sperm can live inside you for up to five days after ejaculation, Dr. Goist explains. Since these drugs only provide the most powerful protection for up to three to five days post-sex, having unprotected sex after taking EC basically means the sperm might outlast the medicine’s most effective window.
Here’s another way to think of it: Imagine having unprotected sex on Sunday, taking the morning-after pill on Monday at 8 a.m., then having unprotected sex again on Tuesday. You’ll be the most protected from Monday through Thursday at 8 a.m. if you take Plan B and other levonorgestrel-based EC, or Saturday at 8 a.m. if you take Ella. Any sperm from Tuesday’s intercourse, however, could theoretically live inside of you until Sunday—leaving you vulnerable to unintended pregnancy even though you technically took the morning-after pill. While you might still be protected, you’re leaving a lot up to chance, Lauren Streicher, M.D., a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “There’s no data to support that. It hasn’t been tested in clinical trials that way.”
Emergency contraception pills (ECPs) are the subject of more rumors and misunderstandings than any celebrity I can name—despite the fact that the medical community has been studying them for over 50 years. Part of the confusion is due to outdated information included in package labeling, and part is due to political interference with science.
If the condom broke, you forgot a pill, or things went further than you planned, having a Plan B—pun intended—can make a big difference. So if you ever had, have, or might have sex, it’s important to separate the fact from the fiction where ECPs are concerned—starting with the realities behind these 5 common myths.
Myth 1: There’s only one ECP option—and it’s hard to get.
There are more than two dozen types of ECPs in the U.S. The most common is the levonorgestrel-only pill—the best known brand of it is Plan B One-Step and generic versions include Next Choice One Dose, My Way, and Take Action. Plan B One-Step and generic levonorgestrel-only ECPs are now available in pharmacies, in stores, and online without a prescription or age restrictions. Most clinics accept walk-in patients who need emergency contraception (EC) in a hurry.
A newer ECP called ella contains ulipristal acetate and requires a prescription regardless of age. You can consult with a doctor and get a prescription for ella online. Side effects are low with either method, but some women have nausea, abdominal cramps, or changes in their next period. BTW, it’s also good to know that a study found that levonorgestrel-based pills may be less effective for women who weigh more than 165 lbs—and ella may be less effective for women who weigh more than 195 lbs. ParaGard is the only EC option that we know is equally effective regardless of weight.
There’s also the Yuzpe method, where plain old birth control pills taken in higher amounts can be used as EC. This table shows the needed amounts for different types of pills. This method may be convenient, especially if birth control pills are already on hand, but it’s associated with more nausea and vomiting and is less effective than other options.
Getting ECPs as quickly as possible after unprotected sex is important since their effectiveness decreases over time. The ideal is to take them immediately after sex, but they can help prevent a pregnancy when taken up to five days after. Bedsider has an EC search with locations providing EC if you’re not sure where to get it in your area. Better yet, order online and keep it in your medicine cabinet.
Myth 2: ECPs cause abortion.
Little-known fact: After sex, sperm hang around in the fallopian tubes for days waiting for an egg to appear. If an egg doesn’t show up, the sperm eventually give up. That’s why ECPs only work for up to 5 days after sex, and why it’s important to take them as soon as you can.
Some people confuse ECPs with medication abortion pills, but they are not the same thing. (At all.) Levonorgestrel, the progestin hormone in most ECPs, has no effect on an established pregnancy. All ECPs prevent pregnancy by delaying ovulation, so the egg and sperm never meet up. Studies show that ECPs are not effective if a woman has already ovulated.
Myth 3: I partied last night, so taking ECPs now is dangerous.
Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs don’t change the effectiveness of ECPs. Partying may affect how likely you are to hook up, but there’s no reason for it to affect your decision to take EC the next day. In general, the benefits of taking ECPs far outweigh the risks—especially since not taking it can mean dealing with the risks that come with pregnancy. It makes sense if you think about it like this:
EC is a one-time dose of a higher level of a hormone your body makes naturally.
Pregnancy is a nine-month dose of those same hormones at even higher levels.
Myth 4: If I take ECPs today, I’m covered if we have unprotected sex again tomorrow.
ECPs are only good to protect against one act of unprotected sex. They work by blocking ovulation, but only for a few days, so if you take them and have unprotected sex again afterwards, you’re significantly increasing your risk of a pregnancy. If you have unprotected sex again within a few days of taking the pills, there will be more sperm waiting in the fallopian tubes when the egg is eventually released.
Myth 5: ECPs will mess up your fertility if you take them too many times.
There is zero evidence that taking ECPs multiple times affects future fertility. Probably the biggest risk of taking ECPs multiple times is an eventual unintended pregnancy. ECPs prevent about 7 out of 8 pregnancies that would otherwise occur, meaning they’re less effective than other types of birth control like the pill, patch, and ring. ECPs are way less effective than the IUD or implant. Also, depending on your health insurance, it may be expensive to take them repeatedly.
If you find you’re taking ECPs regularly, it’s probably more affordable—not to mention more effective—to talk to your health care provider about which non-emergency method of birth control could be right for you. But if you ever have an emergency situation, don’t believe the rumors—ECPs are a safe and effective second chance to prevent an accidental pregnancy.
Maria Isabel Rodriguez, MD, is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist and a clinical fellow in Family Planning at the University of California, San Francisco. She likes working with women of all ages and believes that reproductive health is critical to not just the health of women, but making healthy families and happy communities. She surfs badly, but likes it anyways.
Dr. Rodriguez is a faculty member at UCSF. However, the views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Regents of the University of California, UCSF, UCSF Medical Center, or any entities or units thereof.
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How Many Times Can You Actually Take Plan B? Asking For a Friend
When your regular form of birth control fails—whether it’s a broken condom or missed oral contraceptive—taking the morning-after pill as soon as possible can help prevent an unplanned pregnancy. While it’s perfectly safe to take the morning-after pill, should you be concerned if you’ve taken it more than once, or even countless times? And could it affect your ability to get pregnant in the future? We asked experts to weigh in.
The most common morning-after pills are over-the-counter tablets containing higher doses of levonorgestrel, a synthetic progestin hormone that is also in oral contraceptives. These pills work by preventing the ovary from releasing an egg, which in turn means you don’t ovulate, lowering the risk of male sperm fertilizing an egg. You might know them by their brand names, such as Next Choice One Dose, Take Action, My Way, or the most well-known, Plan B One Step.
Important disclaimer: Although morning-after pills aren’t 100% effective at preventing a pregnancy, they can reduce the risk by 75-89%, according to Planned Parenthood. If you have unprotected sex, you should take Plan B as soon as possible; they work best within the first three days after sex.
While the morning-after pill won’t have harmful long-term effects on your body, taking it multiple times can turn your hormones upside-down, says Sherry A. Ross, MD, a Los Angeles-based ob-gyn and author of She-ology ($26; amazon.com). “It’s temporarily harmful in that you will have irregular bleeding and may feel emotionally unraveled,” she tells Health.”But once you stop taking it, your body will have the opportunity to reset.”
Orlando-based ob-gyn Christine Greves, MD, a fellow of the American Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology, agrees with Dr. Ross. You might experience unpleasant side effects after taking Plan B, she explains, including nausea and lower abdominal cramps in addition to irregular bleeding. But she stresses that these are short-term effects.
Although taken less often, Ella, another type of morning-after pill available with a prescription, also won’t have long-term effects on your health, says Dr. Greves. But she does note that you shouldn’t take other forms of birth control pills that contain progesterone for at at least five days after using Ella, because it could interfere with the pill’s effectiveness.
However, if you’ve taken the morning-after pill for the umpteenth time, you might want to speak to your gynecologist about alternate contraceptive options, says Bat-Sheva Lerner Maslow, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Extend Fertility, pointing out that it’s better to have a reliable form of contraception than constantly turning to emergency ones. If you struggle to remember to take birth control pills, for example, long-term contraception such as an intrauterine device (IUD) can make forgetfulness a non-issue. A copper IUD, for example, “is more than 99.9% effective at preventing pregnancy, and can be kept in for up to 10 years.”
So, say you had unprotected sex and took the morning-after pill. Would that same pill prevent pregnancy if you then had unprotected sex again a few days after taking it? (Hey, accidents happen.) To play it safe, it’s best to take Plan B after every unprotected sexual encounter, experts say.
“In theory, it should cover you until your next period because of the changes it causes in the uterine lining,” says Dr. Maslow, “but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend relying on it as a proactive form of birth control.”
And can taking Plan B make it difficult to get pregnant when you do want to down the road? Fortunately, all experts we polled were in agreement on this: The morning-after pill won’t have any long-term affects on your future fertility. Phew!
The 4 Biggest Misconceptions About Plan B
It’s Basically the Same as Medical Abortion Pills
“Emergency contraception pills are completely different from medical abortion pills,” says Sara Gottfried, M.D., author of The Hormone Cure. The difference boils down to the mechanism used to prevent or lose an unwanted pregnancy. Plan B will not affect an existing pregnancy or harm a developing fetus-it only has the ability to inhibit ovulation, Gottfried explains. As for medical abortion pills, those actually cause the fetus to stop developing and trigger the uterus to expel the pregnancy.
You’ll Become Infertile if You Take It Too Much
Repeated use of Plan B will not permanently mess up your fertility, but it’s not something you want to get in the habit of doing, says Landa. First off, there are cheaper-and more effective!-methods of BC out there. What’s more, if you use Plan B too often, your cycle could become very irregular making it difficult to know when you’re fertile and whether or not you’ve become pregnant.
If You Took Plan B This Morning, You Can Forgo a Condom Tonight
A dose of Plan B in the a.m. is not a hall pass for risky sex at night. While levonorgestrel-the active ingredient in Plan B-stays in your body a few days after taking it, the levels in your body decrease within hours of the dose, Gottfried says. That means the effectiveness of Plan B (against future sexual encounter) is greatly reduced. Also, sperm can stay alive in the body for up to seven days-far longer than the peak dose of Plan B-so that means an egg could become fertilized any time in that window, says Gottfried.
- By Marie Gartee
Emergency contraception may seem self-explanatory — when your plan A fails (or isn’t even an option), it is, quite literally, time for Plan B. The morning after pill, sold under the brand name Plan B among others, prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex. But there are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding Plan B out there, from how it works to potential side effects. We’re here to set the record straight about these common misconceptions:
Myth #1: Plan B is an abortion pill
Not at all. Plan B contains a completely different ingredient than the abortion pill, which is, in fact, two medicines, mifepristone and misoprostol. Plan B contains levonorgestrel, the same active ingredient as regular birth control pills, just at a higher dose. Plan B does not terminate a pregnancy, but rather prevents it by delaying ovulation. So if you are already pregnant or think you might be, Plan B will not affect the existing pregnancy.
Myth #2: You have to take Plan B within 24 hours for it to work
Ironically, the morning after pill does not literally need to be taken the morning after unprotected sex in order for it to work. Plan B can prevent pregnancy if taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. However, the sooner you take it, the more effective it is, which is why it is recommended that you take Plan B within 12 hours of unprotected sex. If taken within 24 hours of unprotected sex, Plan B is 95% effective, and if taken between 48 and 72 hours afterwards, the efficacy rate drops to 61 percent.
Myth #3: Plan B works for everybody
Although this isn’t widely advertised, multiple research studies suggest that Plan B is less effective for people with a higher BMI. If you weigh more than 165 pounds or have a BMI over 25, ella (an alternative morning after pill) or the copper IUD are better options. ella prevents pregnancy up to 5 days after unprotected sex, and unlike Plan B, does not get less effective as time passes, but you need a prescription to get it. If you are on hormonal birth control (the pill, ring, patch, or shot), ella is not the best emergency contraception option because it makes both medications less effective.
Plan B is also not recommended if you are allergic to levonorgestrel or any other ingredients in the pill, or if you have abnormal vaginal bleeding. Some medications and herbal remedies can interact with Plan B and make it less effective, so talk to your healthcare provider if you are taking anything else.
Myth #4: It’s a pain to buy Plan B
Actually, Plan B is available on the shelf at pharmacies, and purchase does not require a prescription or ID. There is also no age or gender requirement to purchase it. Prices vary by brand, but if you are stocking up ahead of time (which we highly recommend!), it’s usually cheapest to order online — don’t worry, every brand of morning after pill is equally effective. Some health insurance plans cover Plan B, but you may need a prescription in order for insurance to pay for it.
Myth #5: Plan B has awful side effects
Severe reactions to Plan B are pretty rare. Most side effects usually pass within 24 hours. The most common side effects include nausea, abdominal pain, fatigue, headache, dizziness, breast tenderness, vomiting, diarrhea, and irregular menstrual bleeding. If you vomit within 2 hours of taking Plan B, you may not have absorbed the medication and might need to take another dose.
Less common reactions include migraine or severe headache, lower abdominal pain, painful menstruation, and vaginal discharge. Contact a healthcare professional if symptoms continue for more than 48 hours, or if you experience any of the following side effects: itching and rash, cramping or severe pain in your stomach or belly prior to your next normal period, uterine hemorrhage, or vaginal hemorrhage.
Myth #6: If you took Plan B in the morning, you don’t need to use protection that night
Plan B does not protect against future sexual encounters, so resume your regular birth control method after taking Plan B. If you’ve taken plan B because of missed birth control pills, ask your pharmacist or healthcare provider about the best way to resume taking them. Remember to use another method of contraception, such as condoms, until your birth control is fully reliable again.
Myth #7: You’ll become infertile if you take Plan B too much
Taking Plan B absolutely won’t hurt your chances of getting pregnant later on. Actually, if used on more than one occasion, the cumulative pregnancy rate will be higher. Translation: the more frequently you take Plan B, the less effective it is overall. Also, if Plan B is taken more than once within a menstrual cycle or more than the occasional once-a-month use, it may impact your period, including a shorter or longer cycle and a heavier or lighter period.
Plan B One Step. The morning-after pill. Levonorgestrel. Emergency contraceptives. Whatever you decide to call it, when the condom breaks or when other birth control methods fail, this medication can be a viable back-up to preventing pregnancy after sex.
Plan B is just one of a few emergency contraceptives available on the market, but it is the most widely known and easily obtainable. With it come a slew of myths and fables about how it works, when to take it and how to get it. So, let’s dispel some rumors and get into the cold, hard facts.
To start, let’s talk about biology. In order to become pregnant, the ovary of the biological female must ovulate an egg, and that egg must encounter a sperm in the fallopian tubes. Ovulation in women occurs once per 28-day cycle, 12 to 14 days in, which is about 2 weeks after the period starts, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
During penis-in-vagina intercourse, unless the sperm is blocked by a barrier method such as a condom, or is killed by spermicide or otherwise prevented from entering the uterus, it can reach that egg and fertilize it. Sperm can live up to 6 days inside the body, according to Planned Parenthood.
However, if the body doesn’t ovulate in the first place, that can’t happen. This is where Plan B comes in. The pill contains compounds that inhibit luteinizing hormone (LH), which is the hormone that induces ovulation, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine. Without LH, ovulation cannot occur.
When a woman takes Plan B within 72 hours of intercourse, ovulation can be delayed long enough for the sperm to die in the fallopian tubes, waiting for an egg that will never come. Thus, fertilization can be prevented.
Now, let’s talk about some common myths associated with Plan B.
Myth: Plan B is 100 percent effective.
No birth control method other than abstinence is 100 percent effective (though this doesn’t mean you can’t have safer sex with contraceptives!) Plan B is only 88 percent effective with proper use, according to Princeton University.
Myth: Plan B is a replacement for regular birth control.
Plan B is meant as a backup, when primary birth control methods fail. Because it prevents ovulation and has a short window to work in, there are many ways for it to fail, especially if ovulation has already occurred. Regular birth control methods such as an implant, birth control pills, condoms or IUDs are more reliable, according to the CDC. As well, Plan B does nothing to prevent STI-transmission, unlike condoms.
Myth: I need a doctor’s prescription to get Plan B.
Plan B is over-the-counter, which means that you can buy it without a prescription. While some pharmacies may keep it behind the counter in order to prevent shoplifting, simply ask the cashier for the box and you should be able to purchase it with no hassle. As well, federal laws protect your identity when buying this product. The cashier, legally, cannot tell anyone–not your parents, your roommates, your professors, anyone–that you bought Plan B.
Myth: Plan B has no side effects.
Unfortunately, no. Side effects of Plan B can include nausea or vomiting, dizziness, light bleeding or spotting, lower abdominal pain or breast tenderness, according to Princeton University.
Myth: Plan B is the same as an abortion pill.
Nope! Remember, Plan B prevents ovulation. It doesn’t kill the egg–it just delays it, like a bus that’s a bit late. As well, it doesn’t cause the uterus to reject a fetus, according to Princeton University, unlike abortion pills.
Myth: Plan B is for everyone.
It isn’t a catch-all-cure-all. Plan B becomes less effective the longer you wait after sex to take it, or if you have a BMI of 35 or higher, according to Planned Parenthood. As well, certain medications such as carbamazepine or supplements such as St. John’s Wort can decrease the pill’s effectiveness, according to the FDA. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure.
Myth: I have to wait until the morning after to take Plan B.
Despite the name, this isn’t the case. Planned Parenthood recommends that you take Plan B within 72 hours of intercourse–the sooner, the more effective. If you’re worried about your primary birth control failing, keep some on hand as a backup so you can take it right away.
With this, I hope you’re a little more informed about the drug. Remember, knowledge is power, and the best kind of sex is passionate, safe and consensual.
Emergency contraception: dispelling the myths and misperceptions
Elizabeth Westley a & Anna Glasier b
a. International Consortium for Emergency Contraception, 588 Broadway (Suite 503), New York, NY, 10012, United States of America.
b. National Health Service, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Correspondence to Elizabeth Westley (e-mail: [email protected]).
Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2010;88:243-243. doi: 10.2471/BLT.10.077446
Emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) are now available in many countries, but have failed to have the desired impact on unwanted pregnancy rates. Why is this? Earlier barriers to access are becoming less and less prevalent. A market for ECPs has been demonstrated and numerous manufacturers and distributors are keen to supply products; in many countries they are starting to be mainstreamed into norms, pre-service training and services.
Yet knowledge continues to be an important barrier in much of the world. This post-coital contraceptive method is still relatively unknown in many countries, according to data from Demographic and Health surveys1 and other country-level surveys. A 2007 survey of adolescents in New York City schools2 revealed that fewer than half of these young people had heard about emergency contraceptive pills, despite extensive public outreach and media publicity surrounding their over-the-counter status in the United States of America (USA).
Even when knowledge of this type of contraceptive is higher, use often remains fairly low, as in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where 91% of women had heard of “the morning-after pill” but only 7% had used it in the past year.3 One reason for low correct use of ECPs is the very poor basic understanding of fertility, contraception and pregnancy risk that seems widespread in both developed and developing countries. In France, a survey of women seeking abortion indicated that more than half were unaware of their pregnancy risk at the time that they became pregnant or could not identify the specific act of intercourse that led to the pregnancy; only a minority of women used emergency contraceptive pills.4 In the United Kingdom, a study of abortion and pre-natal care clients showed that emergency contraceptive pills were used by only one in ten women who definitely did not wish to become pregnant, and even fewer used the method every time they were at risk of pregnancy.5
Unfortunately, the already substantial misinformation that women have about pregnancy risk and emergency contraceptive pills (along with other contraceptive methods) is being compounded by recent media coverage. “Besides side effects, like nausea, heavy bleeding and cramps, regular use of emergency contraception may cause infertility and in some instances increase the risk of cancer,” declared one BBC story on emergency contraceptive pills in Kenya.6 “EC come with an increased risk for things like blood clots and hormone-related cancers, like many traditional forms of birth control,” stated a mainstream newspaper in the USA.7 These statements are factually incorrect but unfortunately are widespread. Such negative and sometimes inflammatory media coverage only alarms women and may keep some from using the method when they most need it.
Indeed, media and public health can be a volatile mix. The potential association between childhood vaccination and autism proposed in one article in the Lancet in 1998 (and officially retracted in 2010) was picked up by media around the world, and led to resistance to vaccination, millions spent on studies and many years of research to refute the claim.8,9 The effects have persisted: a 2009 survey found that fully one quarter of American parents agreed that “some vaccines cause autism in healthy children” and more than one in ten had refused a vaccine for their child.10
Today, the echo chamber that is the Internet can quickly spread and amplify media stories, particularly if they are sensational. An e-mail circulating for several years describes a “true story” of a woman who died of a stroke while on hormonal birth control;11 recently, this story morphed and now states “the cause of death – continuously taking the morning-after pill”. The fear-mongering media coverage around emergency contraceptive pills is likely to be driven by concerns about “irresponsible” sexuality, hiding behind false “scientific” justification for such concerns.
Public health and medical professionals cannot afford to ignore the role of today’s media. Accurate media coverage has played an important role in spreading the news about health risks, healthy behaviours and new products; sensationalist and frightening coverage can have the opposite effect. In the case of levonorgestrel-alone emergency contraceptives, safety has been clearly demonstrated through countless studies and many decades of use: no new research needs to be conducted. The urgent question is how we can explain and disseminate the science in simple terms.
While countering every health-related rumour on the Internet and inaccurate story in local newspapers and magazines is surely a fool’s errand, it is increasingly important to be ready with the facts when reporters, community members and patients voice concerns. A team of experts from around the world has produced a short, simple statement on the safety of levonorgestrel-alone emergency contraceptive pills, responding directly to articles that appeared in the mainstream media in 2009 and written for non-scientists. This co-production of the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception can be accessed on the WHO web site.12
The £3 morning-after pill and emergency contraceptive myths
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The contraceptive pill, the coil and condoms are still seen as the best ways to prevent pregnancy
Emergency contraception, or the “morning-after pill”, is something most women are aware of when it comes to preventing unwanted pregnancies.
But it’s also something people have a lot of questions about – from how much it costs to how safe it is.
Online pharmacy Dr Fox has just started selling the pill for £3 – nearly ten times less than the price it goes for on the high street. So, naturally, we had a few questions.
According to Dr Steele, the medical director for the pharmacy, there are a number of reasons they’re able to charge so little for emergency contraception.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption An online pharmacy is now offering emergency contraceptives for £3
Emergency contraceptives are available from GPs and sexual health clinics for free but there can be waits and delays.
High street pharmacies usually charge between £14 and £35 depending on the type of contraceptive you need.
“We can give them a generic version, which is cheaper and lower cost than pharmacies who offer a branded product,” Dr Steele tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
“It’s simply the way the pharmacy market works and it’s to do with marketing and branding that pharmacies have – they have overheads to cover,” he tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
He also says because there’s no physical input from a pharmacist, you don’t need to factor in paying them for their time.
Boots tells us its prices differ based on the type of pill that’s needed and the length of time that’s passed since unprotected sex.
It reduced its prices in 2018 after a campaign by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – but, like other retailers, is still facing claims it charges too much.
“The sale of the morning-after pill for £3 illustrates just how cheap this medication is, but women are still having to pay vastly over the odds for this pill at their time of need,” BPAS says.
Radio 1 Newsbeat contacted Superdrug but haven’t yet heard back.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Condoms are a way of protecting you from sexually transmitted diseases as well as pregnancy
‘A very affordable type of treatment’
“We want women to have access to the morning-after pill as a standby treatment so that when they need it, this can prevent unwanted pregnancy.
“And we also want to highlight that it is a very affordable type of treatment,” says Dr Steele.
Another reason the online pharmacy has started selling emergency contraception so cheaply is because in the lead up to Christmas it might be harder to access GP surgeries, sexual health clinics and high street pharmacies.
“It’s a busy time of year,” Dr Steele says.
But he’s keen to point out that as much as it is an “effective method of contraception” it is not the first thing people should be using to prevent pregnancy.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Emergency contraception can be purchased from high street pharmacies
Myths surrounding emergency contraception
This is also something that Jackie Redding – who works for sexual health charity Brook – wants people to know.
Brook provides people under 25 with contraception and STI tests.
Here Jackie answers some common questions about emergency contraceptives.
1. What is the most effective form of contraception?
The contraceptive pill, IUDs (the contraceptive coil) and condoms are the best way to prevent pregnancy, whilst it’s important to remember that emergency contraceptives don’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections. The only thing to protect you from STIs is going to be condom use.
2. Is the “morning-after pill” safe?
I think the most important thing is that we try and get out the habit of calling it the morning-after pill. When we call it that people understandably think you can only take it the morning after unprotected sex.
Actually there are two types of pill – one you can take up to three days after unprotected sex while you are on no contraception or if it’s failed. The other one you can take up to five days after sex.
Both pills have a 95% success rate in preventing pregnancy as long as you take them before you start ovulating – but the quicker you take them the more effective they are.
3. Does emergency contraception have side effects?
Some people have absolutely no side effects and some people get quite a lot – it’s like taking any medication. You might get headaches, tummy pain, some changes with your next period or you might feel a bit sick. For most people they are quite minor side effects but if they went on for longer you’d have to see a doctor.
4. Is there a limit to how many times you can take the emergency contraception?
There is no limit to how many times people can take it but it is an emergency contraception – designed to be used in emergencies – and not as a normal course of action. Getting your regular contraception sorted means you don’t have to worry about it.
5. Can you stockpile these pills? Do they expire?
They have an expiry date so you need to keen an eye on the packet. But you can keep them for something like a long holiday so it is possible to get them in advance.
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