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What is emergency contraception?

Reviewed by Dr. Margo Harrison,
Julie Medical Advisor

We’ve all been there—unprotected sex happens, and we’re left wondering: could I get pregnant? If this is you, emergency contraception is a safe and effective way to prevent a pregnancy from starting since it’s taken after you had sex with your partner. It’s intended to be used for emergencies only—not as a regular form of birth control like condoms, birth control pills, and IUDs.

The morning-after pill—like Julie— is one of the most common and convenient forms of emergency contraception since it’s an over-the-counter pill found at pharmacies and stores like CVS, nationwide. Both Plan B and Julie have the same ingredient—levonorgestrel—which is FDA-approved and legal in all 50 states. When used correctly, it can significantly reduce your chance of getting pregnant. It doesn’t require a prescription, ID, or credit card, and can be purchased easily by anyone (you, your partner, your friend, or the nice guy from Instacart).
Other types of emergency contraception

Because we deserve options. Beyond Julie and Plan B, there are other types of emergency contraception available, like the copper IUD. The copper IUD is a small t-shaped piece of plastic with copper coils that’s inserted into the uterus by a healthcare professional. You might already know that it’s a very effective form of regular birth control, but it can also be used as emergency contraception if inserted within 5 days after unprotected sex. Studies have shown the pregnancy rate of people with an IUD is .1% The one caveat is that you do need to get an appointment with a medical provider on the fly, which isn’t always easy. Since time is of the essence when you’re trying to protect yourself against pregnancy after unprotected sex, the morning-after pill (like Julie) is a much faster, convenient, and affordable option.

Speaking of time—it’s important to take the morning-after pill as soon as you’re able. The pill is most effective when taken within 72 hours (3 days), but the sooner you take it the better.
How the morning-after pill works

First of all, if you have unprotected sex, don’t panic—you are not automatically pregnant. In fact, pregnancy doesn’t happen nearly as fast as we think it does.

It actually takes up to 2-3 weeks to get pregnant. And three key things need to happen: an egg needs to be released from the ovary (ovulation), a sperm has to swim and link up with the egg in the fallopian tube (fertilization), and then that egg-sperm combo has to find a spot on your uterine lining to hang out and develop. Once it finds its landing spot, that’s when pregnancy officially starts. 

The morning-after pill, like Julie and Plan B, uses a compound called levonorgestrel to block this process in two different ways:

1. Prevent ovulation by stopping the egg from being released

Every month, the hormones that control your menstrual cycle get one of your eggs prepped and ready to leave your ovary. Once released, the egg floats through your fallopian tube, which takes about 12 to 24 hours. If you just had unprotected sex, it might meet up with the sperm. But if you haven’t ovulated yet, the morning-after pill temporarily puts the emergency brakes on your ovaries so an egg can’t be released. 

2. Prevent fertilization by causing sperm to not reach the egg

Sperm are super tiny. Like microscopically tiny. When your partner ejaculates during unprotected sex, they release millions of sperm, and it only takes one to fertilize an egg. Those sperm can swim up through your cervix, uterus, and into your fallopian tubes. They’ll hang around for six days waiting to meet up with an egg. The morning-after pill prevents the sperm from ever meeting up with the egg— in other words, they get stood up. Sorry sperm.

How effective is the morning-after pill?
An over-the-counter FDA-approved pill, like Julie or Plan B, is 89% effective when taken within within 72 hours (or 3 days) after unprotected sex and even more effective when taken within 24 hours. The golden rule is the sooner you take it, the better it will work.

If you just had sex and you’re not sure whether you were completely protected, we recommend taking the morning-after pill as soon as possible. Remember, you can easily find Julie at your local CVS or on our site.

One thing to note: Weight does impact the effectiveness of the morning-after pill. If you’re over 165 lbs, the morning-after pill may not be the best option for you. Research, unfortunately, doesn’t know why. But you still have options. Ella® is another type of emergency contraception pill that works for women up to 195 lbs. Like Julie, it’s a one-time pill, but it does require a prescription. The copper IUD is not affected by weight at all, but it does need to be inserted by a healthcare professional up to 5 days after having unprotected sex.
When to use the morning-after pill aka Julie
As women, life happens and sex happens, and there are plenty of reasons why you might find yourself needing to take the morning-after pill. And none of them should ever make you feel shame. Whether a condom broke, you forgot to take your birth control pills for a few days, or for any other reason, Julie is here to help. Keep this checklist on hand to help you figure out whether taking the morning-after pill is the right decision for you.

Use the morning-after pill if:

• You didn’t use birth control.

• You missed 2-3 active birth control pills in a row.

• You and your partner only used the pull out method

• You had unprotected sex.

The morning-after pill is not the abortion pill
The morning-after pill—like Julie and Plan B— is very different from the abortion pill. The morning-after pill prevents pregnancy from starting by stopping the egg from being released, halting fertilization, and preventing implantation. Plus, it’s FDA-approved and legal in all 50 states.

On the other hand, the abortion pill ends an existing pregnancy, which is something that the morning-after pill cannot do. If you’re already pregnant, the morning-after pill and the compound within it, levonorgestrel, cannot end the pregnancy or impact it in any way. Remember, emergency contraception is a backup form of birth control. It is not an abortion pill and cannot end a pregnancy that has already started.

The morning-after pill will not affect your fertility
The morning-after pill, aka Julie, only stops ovulation short-term. When you take it after unprotected sex, it reduces your chance of getting pregnant now—not your chance of getting pregnant in the future. When you start a new cycle next month, you’ll go through a brand new ovulation phase, which is a new opportunity to get pregnant. So if you’re planning on having babies in the future—rest assured your chances of getting pregnant won’t be affected by taking Julie.

Is the morning-after pill like Julie safe?
Yes! The morning-after pill aka levonorgestrel is totally safe. Millions of women have used these pills to prevent pregnancy for decades. There have been no reports of complications, and the pill does not affect your ability to get pregnant in the future. Plus, they’ve been tested extensively and approved by the FDA. That’s why they’re legal and available in all 50 states. While the morning-after pill is safe, it’s important to remember that it does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. You’d have to use proper STD and HIV protection—like a condom—when having sex.

Have questions about preventing pregnancy and safe sex? Check out our After Sex space on Quora where you can ask our team of doctors any question you have.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any medication.

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