If you’re worried about an unintended pregnancy immediately after unprotected sex, you can safely use existing birth control pills as emergency contraception (EC) right away, several reproductive health experts say.
In what's known as the Yuzpe method, you take two doses (pills) of a combination estrogen and progestin oral contraceptive, 12 hours apart, says?Michele Bosworth, MD. She coauthored an article about the practice published in 2014 in the journal?American Family Physician while working for the department of family medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “This is a convenient method for patients to use pills they already have,” she says.
Both doses of pills should be taken as soon as possible, ideally within 72 hours (three days) of unprotected sex, and no later than 120 hours (5 days) after unprotected sex, says Sarah Diemert, a nurse practitioner and the director of medical standards, integration and evaluation for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
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Reduce the Risk of Unplanned Pregnancy
“Emergency contraceptive pills work by delaying or preventing ovulation,” Diemert says. “Using emergency contraception correctly after unprotected sex lowers the likelihood of getting pregnant.”
While no contraceptive method can prevent pregnancy with 100 percent certainty, the Yuzpe method of combined oral contraceptives for emergency contraception reduces the risk of pregnancy by roughly 74 percent if started within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, Diemert says. For extra protection, she recommends using a backup form of birth control for seven days after taking emergency contraception.
Yuzpe Works Only With Certain Brands of the Pill
Only certain kinds of birth control pills that contain specific doses of both estrogen and progestin can be used in the Yuzpe method. Look up your brand of birth control pill to see how to use it, if needed, as emergency contraception.
Using birth control pills this way may cause side effects. They can include nausea and vomiting. If you throw up within two hours after taking a pill, you should repeat the dose, Diemert says. Other side effects may include breast tenderness, fatigue, irregular bleeding, abdominal pain, headache, and dizziness. “These side effects usually taper off one or two days after taking the pills,” she says.
While research in this area is limited, it is possible that the Yuzpe method may not be as effective in people who are overweight or obese, Dr. Bosworth says.
Emergency contraception will not work if a person is already pregnant, and it won’t harm an existing pregnancy.
If your period arrives within your typical menstrual cycle as expected, you will know you are not pregnant. If your period is delayed, “follow routine practices for taking a pregnancy test, which is any time after it is determined that the menstrual period is late,” Bosworth says. Pregnancy tests detect a hormone called HCG, which is produced only when a fertilized egg attaches to the lining of the uterus, called implantation.
Besides a missed menstrual period, other signs of early pregnancy include nausea, fatigue, sore or enlarged breasts, headaches, and frequent urination. If you’re experiencing these, take a pregnancy test as soon as possible.
If you want to keep using your birth control as ongoing contraception, make sure you continue to use it correctly. Once you have taken extra pills as emergency contraception, talk to your healthcare provider about the following, per Bosworth:
- Acquire enough of your needed birth control pills for ongoing contraception.
- Determine if you need testing for a sexually transmitted infection.
- Talk about whether your current contraception choice is the right one for you. Is it easy to use?regularly?
- Ensure you are safe if you were involved in nonconsensual sex.
The Yupze Method Is One of Several EC Options
While there are other forms of emergency contraception, such as pills you can buy over the counter or pills or an IUD you can obtain from a healthcare provider, using what you already have at home is a better option than not doing anything.
“Ultimately, if you can’t get the most effective type of emergency contraception, remember that using whichever method you can get is still better than not using anything at all,” says Diemert. “And timing is really important — you only have up to five days after unprotected sex to use emergency contraception, and sooner is better.”
Overall, consistently using birth control is more effective than relying on emergency contraception, which is always a backup choice and should never be considered the main method of pregnancy prevention.
“Taking contraception on a routine basis is more effective than using emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies,” says Bosworth. “Women of childbearing age should talk to their doctor regularly about contraception whether they are currently sexually active or not. Proactively anticipating contraceptive needs is key and the best method is contraception taken on a routine basis.”