Emergency contraceptive: How does morning-after pill work?

A woman taking morning-after emergency contraceptive pill

Conception involves using contraceptives to prevent the fusion of the sperm cell and the ovum (egg cell), so conception doesn't take place.

Contraceptives are important even for legally married couples who want to opt for family planning. It enables you to space out your kids, and it makes it possible for couples to prevent pregnancy when they feel they have given birth to the number of kids they can cater for. Also, if you get married and don't want to have kids immediately, you and your spouse can consider using contraceptives.

What are contraceptives, and how do they work? We will discuss all that and more in this article.

What are contraceptives?

Contraceptives are different birth control methods used to prevent pregnancy. There are different types of contraceptive methods ranging from hormonal methods to barrier methods.

There are also IUDs, implants, and natural birth control methods. Reading about these birth control methods in detail and speaking with your doctor would help you and your partner decide which option to settle for.

This article will focus only on the use of emergency contraception pills, also known as the morning-after pill.

How morning-after pills work

Sometimes unprotected sex happens, condoms break, and someone may miss taking their regular contraceptive pills. Couples might overlook contraception in the throes of passion until sexual intercourse is over.

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This is more reason why emergency contraception pills might be needed from time to time. Morning-after pills, also known as Plan B, is helpful for preventing pregnancy when sex happens unprepared.

However, it is not to be used as a replacement for conventional birth control methods or regular contraception pills.

One of the most common brand names for emergency contraception pills is 'Postinor-2'. These pills contain levonorgestrel. Levonorgestrel is a progestin hormone that can be used to prevent emergency contraception by delaying ovulation.

Note that:

Levonorgestrel does have side effects, but they are mostly mild, e.g. headache, nausea, dizziness, and breast tenderness. It would be best to talk to a doctor before you start using one.

The morning-after pill works by delaying the release of the egg during ovulation; thus, there won't be an egg for the sperm cell to fertilise.

Ovulation is the monthly release of an egg cell from the ovary. It precedes menstruation (if conception doesn't occur). But if there is sperm present at the time of ovulation, there are high chances of fertilisation taking place, and thus implantation occurs instead of menstruation.

This means instead of the shedding of the lining of the uterus occurring, the fused male and female gametes implant into the uterine wall instead, after which embryonic development commences.

The chances of getting pregnant are higher if sex occurs closer to the ovulation date. But when you take an emergency contraception pill, it delays ovulation.

While an egg lives for about 24 hours after release, sperm cells can live for up to 5 days, Thus, conception can still occur some days after sex.

In the past, emergency contraception was thought to work by preventing implantation and was thus, termed an abortifacient, but that is wrong. It is not the same as RU-486, which is an abortion pill.

It doesn't cause abortion, nor does it cause miscarriage. It also won't work if you are already pregnant.

How to use the levonorgestrel emergency contraceptive

It is called the 'morning-after pill', but you need not wait until morning before taking it. You can take it immediately after sex. In fact, the faster you take the pill, the higher your chances of preventing pregnancy.

For a brand like Posinor-2, it is advised that you take one tablet as soon as possible (within 72 hours of unprotected sexual intercourse). Take a second tablet exactly 12 hours after the first.

Work out a time that will enable you to take the second pill after 12 hours, and if you vomit within 2 hours of taking the tablet, consult your doctor for an additional tablet (it is also better to get the right dosage or direction for usage from your pharmacist).

Another way of taking emergency contraceptive pills is by using birth control pills. But if you are using birth control pills to achieve emergency contraception, it means you have to pop more than one pill at a time.

This approach is not that effective and is more likely to cause nausea than levonorgestrel, but it sure does work to some extent for pregnancy prevention.

How effective are emergency pills?

The effectiveness of emergency pills depends much on how early they are taken. For instance, a tablet such as Postinor-2, if taken within 24 hours, has up to a 90% chance of preventing pregnancy. If taken after 48-72 hours, the chances reduce to 58%.

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It is not known whether it will still be effective if taken after 72 hours. However, you should know that the emergency pill is not as effective as regular contraception. Hence, it would be best if you didn't take it as a regular birth control pill.

You and your spouse should not opt for it as a routine pregnancy prevention method. Instead, think of it as a backup, which explains why it is called Plan B.

Note: Plan B won't prevent you from getting pregnant if you have unprotected sex after taking it. You take it right after unprotected sex for contraception.

Also, factors like being obese can affect its effectiveness. While obesity doesn't render it ineffective, it reduces its effectiveness.

Again, certain medications, like those for HIV, tuberculosis, and epilepsy, can interact with the pill and make it less effective.

Will an emergency contraception pill prevent pregnancy during ovulation?

Now, you know that emergency contraception pills prevent pregnancy by preventing or delaying ovulation. But what if you are already ovulating before taking this drug?

Many questions have arisen regarding the use of morning-after pills during ovulation, such as, "How effective is the morning-after pill after ovulation?" "Does the morning-after pill work if you are ovulating?" "How does Postinor 2 work during ovulation?" etc.

Perhaps, this is one of the shortcomings of morning-after pills. It is also one of the reasons why it doesn't offer as much protection as regular contraception pills.

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Emergency pills work with timing. If sexual intercourse takes place while you are already ovulating, you are much more likely to get pregnant as it can't stop ovulation at that point.

Who shouldn't take emergency contraceptive pills?

While it is advisable to take the morning-after pill in emergency cases, certain people are discouraged from taking it mostly for health concerns.

  • Pregnant women or women who suspect they are pregnant shouldn't take it.
  • Don't take it if you have a history of allergy or hypersensitivity to its ingredients.
  • If you are experiencing abnormal vaginal bleeding, do not take the pills until you have seen a doctor.

Are emergency contraceptive pills safe?

Regarding the safety of use, there have been no reported cases of death or serious health complications with the intake of morning-after pills.

It is safe to use while breastfeeding, as well. It isn't toxic, provided it is taken in the correct dosage and as directed.

Side effects of emergency contraceptive pills

Even though emergency contraceptive pills are relatively safe to use, they have mild side effects, just like other drugs. They have side effects similar to those of regular contraceptives.

Here are some side effects of morning-after pills:

  • Nausea
  • fatigue
  • abdominal pain
  • headache
  • breast tenderness
  • changes or delays with the menstrual cycle
  • vomiting

Couples are advised to practice family planning. In countries like Nigeria, people are given the freedom to give birth to as many children as possible, but it will be best if they give birth to only the number of children they can take care of.

It has been a matter of concern that even the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC), Prof Mojisola Adedeye, urged Nigerians to practice family planning.

Morning-after pills can go a long way to helping prevent conception, as they serve as a backup plan when the conventional birth control method fails or isn't properly used.