It’s happened to all of us. We’re in the heat of the moment, only to realize that the condom broke. Or, it dawns on us that we forgot to take birth control that morning. Whatever the reason, having a backup plan can be essential. By answering the question, “how does emergency birth control work?” you’ll be prepared for those oops moments. My recent contributions to Bustle’s “8 Things to Know About Emergency Contraception” reminded me that education around emergency contraception is in fact quite powerful.
But before we dive into the technicalities of emergency contraception, I want to clear something up. The term “morning-after pill” is a misnomer. This term carries with it a connotation of abortion by pill. This family of drug is not an abortion pill and has no impact on pregnancy. Like other forms of contraception, they are a last line of defense to prevent pregnancy when mistakes/accidents happen. The more accurate description is “emergency contraception”, given the preventative outcomes suggested by the word contraception.
How does emergency contraception work?
Emergency contraception pills interfere with the hormone patterns necessary for a pregnancy to occur. Most work in the first 72 hours (preferably 12) in one of three ways:
- temporarily stopping the release of an egg
- stopping fertilization
- preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus
Most of these drugs use hormones similar to those found in low-dose birth control pills.
Timing is key
Timing is the key component to the effectiveness of emergency contraception pills. As I mentioned above, this family of contraception doesn’t disrupt pregnancy and does not cause an abortion. It must therefore be taken prior to pregnancy occurring.
Weight plays a role
Weight is another factor that impacts emergency contraception. Your healthcare provider or a pharmacist can help you select the best pill to match your weight. However, IUDs are a form of emergency contraception that are not impacted by weight.
How often can I take emergency contraception?
Taking emergency contraception as often as needed is safe. However, it’s called emergency contraception for a reason — you don’t want to rely on it as your go-to method of birth control. Side effects of emergency contraception pills (while temporary and harmless) aren’t fun and can include bleeding and nausea. These pills are also less effective than other forms of birth control. If you find yourself using them more than a couple of times, talk with your provider about the many (more effective) forms of birth control that can be used on a regular basis.
With access to such safety nets as emergency contraception, as well as a plethora of birth control options and barrier methods, women have some power. Even if things don’t go quite as planned, you can always count on emergency contraception for backup.
Meet Dr. Savita Ginde
Dr. Savita Ginde is an advocate and thought leader for reproductive health and served as Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains for over 13 years. And, until very recently, she served as the Chief Healthcare Officer for STRIDE Community Health Center where she oversaw all of STRIDE’s healthcare services and led their COVID-19 vaccination efforts.