Emergency contraception

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception is a safe, effective and responsible method of preventing pregnancy when regular contraception has failed, no contraception was used, and/or in the case of sexual assault. If you act quickly, emergency contraception will usually prevent pregnancy.

Emergency contraception will not prevent you from getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Most STIs are treatable but they often do not have symptoms. If you have had unprotected sex, you should arrange to have an STI screening.

Emergency contraception is also known as post-coital contraception. It is available in two forms:

  • Emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) – progesterone (3-day) and ulipristal (5-day)
  • Insertion of an intrauterine copper device (IUCD)

Where can I get emergency contraception?

Both methods of the ECP are available on medical card directly from pharmacies without a prescription, or from a doctor or family planning clinic. The IFPA’s clinics in Dublin city centre and Tallaght provide a walk-in service for the ECP.

The IUCD is fitted by a trained doctor.

Method 1: Progesterone (3-day) emergency contraceptive pill

The most common brands of the progesterone ECP in Ireland are Norlevo and Prevenelle. This pill is available from pharmacies without a prescription or from a doctor or family planning clinic. It must be taken within 72 hours (3 days) of unprotected sex but is most effective the sooner it is taken.

Method 2: Ulipristal (5-day) emergency contraceptive pill (ellaOne)

The main brand of the ulipristal ECP in Ireland is ellaOne. This pill is available from pharmacies without a prescription or from a doctor or family planning clinic. It must be taken within 120 hours (5 days) of unprotected sex but is most effective the sooner it is taken. Evidence to date supports the ulipristal ECP (ellaOne) as being more effective than the progesterone ECP.

Both methods of the ECP are available on a medical card from pharmacies without a prescription or from a doctor or family planning clinic.

Both methods of the ECP work by preventing or delaying ovulation, thereby preventing fertilisation.

How to take the emergency contraceptive pill

  • Take the ECP as soon as possible after unprotected sex.
  • Inform the doctor or pharmacist if you are on any other medication. A small number of medications may reduce the effectiveness of the ECP and you may need a different dosage or an IUCD (see Method 3: Copper Intrauterine Device)
  • If you vomit within 3 hours of taking the ECP, return to the doctor or pharmacist as soon as possible for a second dose or other advice.
  • Taking different kinds of the ECP during the same cycle is not recommended as they work in different ways. If you need a second dose during your cycle, you must use the same ECP as your first dosage.
  • Use other methods of contraception after taking the ECP as it does not provide contraception for the remainder of your cycle. In fact if ovulation is only delayed, you could well be fertile in the following weeks.
  • Be aware that there is a small risk of failure and you may still become pregnant.
  • The ECP does not work if you are already pregnant.

What should I look out for after taking an emergency contraceptive pill?

If you have taken an emergency contraceptive pill, go to a doctor or family planning clinic if:

  • Your next period is more than 5 days late
  • Your next period is unusually light or heavy
  • You experience severe lower abdominal pain

Side effects of taking the emergency contraceptive pill

There are no long-term effects from using the ECP. However, some women may feel sick, dizzy or tired, or may get headaches, breast tenderness, diarrhoea or lower abdominal pain. These symptoms should improve within a few days. You may have some bleeding before your next period is due or your period may come early or up to one week late. A very small number of women will vomit. (See Taking the Emergency Contraceptive Pill).

There is no evidence to show that taking the ECP will affect your future fertility or that repeated use makes it less effective or causes harmful effects to your body.

Method 3: Copper Intrauterine Device (IUCD or ‘copper coil’)

An IUCD, also known as a copper coil, works as a method of emergency contraception as it may stop an egg being fertilised or implanted in your uterus (womb).

A trained doctor fits an IUCD in your uterus (womb) up to 5 days after you have had unprotected sex. If you need to return to have the IUCD fitted, you may be advised to take the ECP in the meantime.

An IUCD is the most effective method of emergency contraception available. It will prevent more than 9 out of 10 (99%) pregnancies expected to occur if no emergency contraception was used. It can also provide ongoing contraception if you wish to use this method. In a small number of cases, it may not be possible to fit an IUCD.

While an IUCD can be fitted up to 5 days after unprotected sex, it is not as widely available as the ECP and it takes time to be fitted. You should therefore make an appointment as soon as possible.

An IUCD may be suitable if you:
  • Want to use the most effective method of emergency contraception
  • Do not want, or cannot, take hormones
  • Wish to use the IUCD as an ongoing method of contraception