Sexual Health

Emergency contraception (including the 'morning after pill')

Emergency contraception is used to reduce the chances getting pregnant after unprotected sex, missing a pill, or a split condom, which leaves women at risk of pregnancy. There are three types of emergency contraception: two types are a tablet, and the third is a non-hormonal coil. The coil is the most effective at preventing pregnancy. 

Tablets are sometimes referred to as 'morning after pills', but actually can be used for a number of days after the unprotected sex, missed pill or split condom. One tablet (levonelle) can be used for up to 3 days after unprotected sex, and is widely available from chemists, GPs, school and college nurses, and sexual health clinics. It is often free from chemists to young people under 18 or 21 (depending on where they live) The other tablet, Ella-One, can be used up to 5 days after unprotected sex, but needs to be prescribed by a doctor or nurse in a clinic. Both are more effective the sooner they are taken after the unprotected sex.
The IUD (or non-hormonal coil) can also be used for emergency contraception, and is the most effective way of preventing a pregnancy. Whether this is a suitable method depends on where a women is in her period cycle; a doctor or nurse will be able to advise.
Women we interviewed used emergency contraception (or 'EC') when a condom had split or come off, when they forgot to take the pill or it was taken late, or when they'd not used any contraception. 

Most of the women we talked to knew EC was less reliable in preventing pregnancy than the contraceptive pill or injections. If people are having sex regularly it's convenient as well as more reliable to use a regular method of contraception like the pill, IUD (the coil) or IUS (the hormonal coil), the injection, the implant or condoms.

Women sometimes feel embarrassed about using EC, or worried others will see them as irresponsible but taking EC is a responsible thing to do if they want to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Younger women that we interviewed didn't always feel that staff treated them as if they were being responsible when they asked for EC, particularly those in rural areas.

Before it was available from pharmacies, it was sometimes hard to find somewhere open to get emergency contraception.

Some women never take EC and some of those we interviewed were put off by stories of friends' who experienced sickness and other side effects. Older EC pills often made women feel sick but newer ones available now rarely do this.

After taking EC, women may get their next period a bit earlier or later than expected. If the next period is not as heavy or as long as usual, then a pregnancy test might be worthwhile.

Last reviewed January 2016.

Last updated January 2016.


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