Information for women

Contraceptive choices: beyond the morning after | Sexual Health Week 2014

Your contraceptive choices

Hands up who's heard of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC)? You may not have heard this term before - but you've probably heard of at least one of the LARC methods:

  • the implant (also known as the rod)
  • the contraceptive injection (often called by the brand name Depo)
  • the IUD (often called the coil)
  • the IUS (often called by the brand name Mirena).

So what are LARC methods? They're highly effective methods of contraception that you don't have to think about every day or every time you have sex - they last from 8 weeks up to 10 years!

The obvious advantage of these methods is that once they're in place, you can't forget to take them or use them.

However, they don't help protect you against sexually transmitted infections – only condoms will help do that.

Find out more about LARC here >>

Emergency contraception

Most of us know a bit about emergency contraception (EC) and many of us have used it after unprotected sex, or when our usual method of contraception has failed.

But our sexual health week survey revealed that there is a lot of misinformation out there and that often we aren't aware of the different choices we have to help prevent unwanted sperm reaching an egg!

Sperm swimming towards egg

Our Sexwise guide to Emergency Contraception is a great place to start to find out the facts about the three different methods.

Below, we're looking at some of the common myths and misconceptions we hear. Click on the myth to reveal the facts!

The phrase “morning after pill” is really unhelpful and inaccurate – not only because there are three different methods of emergency contraception and only two of them are pills, but none of them have to be used within 24 hours, or by the “morning after” to be effective.

Although it's best to try and get emergency contraception as soon as possible, an emergency pill with levonorgestrel is effective up to 3  days after unprotected sex. An emergency pill with ulipristal acetate and the emergency IUD are effective up to 5 days after unprotected sex.

There are three methods of emergency contraception:

A pill with levonorgestrel (a type of progestogen hormone) which can be taken up to three days (72 hours) after unprotected sex. There are a few different brands available, including pharmacy own brands.

A pill with ulipristal acetate which can be taken up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected sex. The brand available in the UK is called ellaOne.

An emergency IUD a small plastic and copper device that can be fitted in your uterus (womb) up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected sex, and which you can choose to keep as your usual method of contraception for up to five or 10 years, depending on the type. If you don't want to keep it? Not a problem, it can be removed again. This is usually done during your next period.

If you're under 16, you can get emergency contraception, as well as other methods of contraception, without the doctor, nurse or pharmacist having to tell you parents or carer, as long as you are mature enough to understand the advice and any decisions made about giving you contraception.

In some areas there are special schemes to provide emergency contraception for free to young people – but even if the person you ask for emergency contraception can’t provide it, they should tell you the nearest place that can.

You can get emergency contraception from lots of different places, for example:

  • any general practice that provides contraceptive services
  • any contraception clinic
  • any young person’s service or Brook clinic for under 25s
  • any sexual health clinic
  • some GUM clinics.

You can also get pills with levonorgestrel free from some pharmacies (there may be an upper age limit), most NHS walk-in centres (England only), most NHS minor injuries units, and some hospital A&E departments if nowhere else is open.

You can buy emergency pills from most pharmacies. You need to be 16 years old or over to buy levonorgestrel pills.

If one of these services can’t provide emergency contraception for any reason, they should tell you the nearest place that can.

Search for your nearest clinic here or try NHS Choices to find your nearest pharmacy.

If you're feeling worried or embarrassed about going to a pharmacy for emergency contraception be reassured by Mr Ash Soni, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. He says:

“Community pharmacies are the largest single provider of emergency contraception and we talk to women about it on a daily basis, so there’s no need to be embarrassed.  You don’t need an appointment and nearly all pharmacies now have a private consultation area where you won’t be overheard by anyone else.  Just ask to speak to the pharmacist in private to get the help and advice you need about emergency contraception and any other sexual health issues.”

Completely untrue. But emergency contraception is not as effective as using other methods of contraception regularly, so it's best to think about which of the 15 contraceptive methods available in the UK might be most suitable for you at this point in your life.

No it is not. Medical research and legal judgement are very clear – emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy; an abortion ends a pregnancy.

Emergency contraceptive pills are widely available to buy over the counter from pharmacies, without a prescription, and may also be available for free in some pharmacies.

An emergency IUD has to be fitted by a specially trained doctor or nurse.

There are lots of reasons you might need to get emergency contraception, including a condom splitting or slipping off, or a missed pill.

No method of contraception is 100% effective so there will always be times when women need to prevent a pregnancy after sex. And this is the real world; of course mistakes are going to happen.

Nobody should judge you for getting emergency contraception, and there is no need to feel embarrassed. Acting to prevent an unwanted pregnancy is a responsible action.

It’s a common misconception that women reach an age when their fertility suddenly disappears, and they don’t need to worry about pregnancy any more. But fertility declines gradually so it’s important to continue using contraception until menopause if you don't want to risk an unplanned pregnancy.

It's fine to take emergency pills more than once in the same cycle if you need to. You might not be able to take a different type of emergency pill in the same cycle though.

Emergency contraception is not as effective as using other methods of contraception regularly, so it's best to think about which of the 15 contraceptive methods might be most suitable for you at this point in your life.

It's safe to use an emergency contraceptive pill with levonorgestrel while breastfeeding.

It's advised to avoid breastfeeding for one week after taking an emergency contraceptive pill with ulipristal acetate. During this time, it's advised to express and discard your milk.

There are 15 methods of contraception available in the UK – two that can be used by men and 13 that can be used by women. While the external (male) condom and the combined pill are the most well known, they aren’t necessarily the most suitable methods for everyone. To find out more about what might work for you, try My Contraception Tool.

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