How Effective is the Morning After Pill?

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In the realm of reproductive health, the morning-after pill, also known as emergency contraception, stands as a vital option for women facing the unexpected consequences of unprotected intercourse. As society continues to evolve, discussions around sexual health and family planning have become more open and inclusive. Against this backdrop, the morning-after pill has emerged as a valuable method of emergency contraception, offering a means to prevent unintended pregnancies when traditional forms of contraception fail or are absent.

This article looks into the effectiveness of the morning after, including how it works, its usage, and its overall impact on reproductive health. Understanding the nuances of emergency contraception is key for women seeking informed choices in managing their reproductive well-being. 

Understanding Emergency Contraception

Emergency contraception is like having a backup plan for preventing pregnancy when things don’t go as expected. Imagine you had unprotected sex or something went wrong with your regular birth control – that’s where the morning-after pill comes in. It’s not an abortion pill, but rather a way to stop pregnancy before it even starts.

Depending on the type, you can find it at the pharmacy, either over-the-counter or online or family planning clinic in your state. The trick is to take it as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. It works by either stopping your egg from meeting sperm, preventing fertilisation, or making it hard for a fertilised egg to stick in the womb.

So, in simple terms, the emergency contraception pill is like a safety net to help you avoid an unplanned pregnancy hiccup. Knowing how it works, when to use it, and the types available is like having that extra peace of mind when you need it most.

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How Does the Morning After Pill Work?

The morning-after pill is a type of birth control used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure (such as a condom breaking). There are two main types of emergency contraception pills: those that contain levonorgestrel and those that contain ulipristal acetate.

Levonorgestrel-based morning-after pills

  • These pills often come in a single-dose or two-dose regimen.

  • Levonorgestrel is a synthetic hormone that is similar to the hormone progesterone, which is naturally produced by the ovaries.

  • It works primarily by preventing or delaying ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary).

  • If ovulation has already occurred, levonorgestrel may make it more difficult for a fertilised egg to implant in the uterus by altering the uterine lining.

Ulipristal acetate-based morning-after pills

  • This type of pill is available in a single-dose regimen.

  • Ulipristal acetate is a selective progesterone receptor modulator.

  • It works primarily by delaying ovulation, similar to levonorgestrel.

  • Additionally, ulipristal acetate may interfere with the ability of a fertilised egg to implant in the uterus.

It’s important to note that emergency contraceptive pills are not 100% effective, and their efficacy decreases the longer you wait to take them after unprotected sex. It is most effective when taken as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse and within the recommended time frame specified for the particular type of morning-after pill.

It’s also worth mentioning that the morning-after pill is not to be used as a regular form of contraception. Instead, it is intended for emergency situations. If you are frequently engaging in unprotected sex or experiencing contraceptive failures, discuss more reliable and regular methods of contraception with a healthcare provider.

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The Timeframe for Taking the Pill

Timing is everything when it comes to the emergency contraceptive pill. The effectiveness of the morning-after pill is highly dependent on the time frame in which it is taken after unprotected intercourse. Different types of morning-after pills have different recommended time frames. It’s important to follow these guidelines for optimal effectiveness. Here are the general recommendations for the two main types of morning-after pills:

Levonorgestrel Emergency Contraceptive Pill

  • Ideally, the first dose should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex.

  • The first dose can be taken up to 72 hours (3 days) after intercourse.

  •  If a two-dose regimen is prescribed, the second dose is usually taken 12 hours after the first dose.

Ulipristal Acetate-based Contraceptive Pill

  • These pills are more effective than levonorgestrel-based pills and can be taken up to 120 hours (5 days) after unprotected sex.

  • Like levonorgestrel, ulipristal acetate is a single-dose regimen.

The effectiveness of the morning-after pill decreases as time passes after unprotected sex. While the pill may still provide some level of protection if taken later in the recommended time frame, it is most effective when taken as soon as possible.

If more than the recommended time frame has passed or if there is uncertainty about whether the morning-after pill is still effective, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional for guidance. If you experience vomiting within two hours of taking the morning-after pill, you should seek medical advice, as you may need to take another dose.

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Potential Side Effects and Risks

The morning-after pill is generally considered safe and effective for emergency contraception, but like any medication, it can have potential side effects and risks. It’s important to be aware of these and to seek medical attention if you experience severe or persistent symptoms. Some potential side effects of the morning-after pill include:

Nausea and Vomiting

Some individuals may experience nausea after taking the morning-after pill. If vomiting occurs within two hours of taking the pill, it may not be fully absorbed, and a repeat dose may be necessary.


Feeling tired or fatigued is a common side effect.


Some people may experience headaches as a side effect of emergency contraception.

Breast Tenderness

Temporary breast tenderness or discomfort may occur.

Menstrual Cycle Changes

The morning-after pill can sometimes cause changes in menstrual bleeding, such as earlier or later periods, or changes in the flow.

Abdominal Pain or Cramps

Some individuals may experience abdominal pain or cramping.

These side effects are generally mild and temporary. Most people tolerate the morning-after pill well. However, if you experience severe or persistent symptoms or if you have concerns about the side effects, contact a healthcare professional.

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Effectiveness of Emergency Contraception

The effectiveness of emergency contraception is contingent on its prompt and timely use after unprotected intercourse. The efficacy varies based on the type of emergency contraceptive and how quickly it is taken. 

Levonorgestrel-based pills are most effective when taken within 72 hours (3 days) of unprotected sex, while ulipristal acetate can be effective up to 120 hours (5 days) later. However, the sooner the medication is taken, the higher the likelihood of preventing pregnancy.

It’s crucial to recognise that emergency contraception is not foolproof, and its efficacy diminishes over time. While it provides an important option for preventing unintended pregnancies, regular and more reliable forms of contraception, such as combined oral contraceptive pills, are recommended for ongoing contraceptive needs.

Important Considerations 

In addition to potential side effects, there are certain considerations and risks associated with the use of emergency contraception:


The morning-after pill is more effective the sooner it is taken after unprotected intercourse. Its efficacy decreases as time passes.

Repeat Use

While the morning-after pill is safe for occasional use, it is not intended for regular or frequent use. If you find yourself needing emergency contraception often, it’s recommended to discuss more reliable and regular forms of contraception with a healthcare provider.

No Protection Against Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Taking emergency contraceptive pills provides no protection against STIs. If there is a risk of STIs, it’s important to use barrier methods (e.g., condoms) to reduce the risk of infection.

As with any medication, it’s important to discuss your health history, concerns, and any medications you are taking with a healthcare professional before using the morning-after pill. They can provide personalised advice based on your specific situation.

Consulting a Healthcare Professional

If you have concerns about contraception or need emergency contraception pills, consult a healthcare professional for personalised guidance. They can assess your situation, discuss options, and provide information on the most suitable choices. Open communication with a healthcare provider is essential for informed decisions about reproductive health and family planning.

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