What is the emergency contraceptive pill?

The emergency contraceptive pill is worth thinking about if you have had unprotected sex recently and are worried about getting pregnant. It’s helpful to know about how it works as well as when you should take it. You can access emergency contraception from a number of places, but there are a couple of things you need to think about before you take it. Overall it is quite a safe form of contraception to use if and when you need it.

The emergency contraception pill can help if:

  • You’ve had unprotected sex in the last 5 days
  • You forgot to take your regular contraceptive pill
  • The condom broke
packet of pills

What is the Emergency contraceptive pill?

The Emergency Contraception Pill (ECP) is a special dose of the progestogen hormone called levonorgestrel which has been used for many years in common contraceptive pills. The ECP is usually taken in the form of a single tablet and is available without a prescription from the pharmacy.

If you did not use contraception during sex, or perhaps used a condom but it broke, you may want to take the ECP to reduce the chance of pregnancy.

Sometimes it is called the 'morning after pill' but that can be misleading because it can actually be effective if you take it up to five days afterwards, not just the 'morning after'.  However, the sooner you take it the better as its chance of working decreases over time.

How does it work?

Emergency contraception can work in two ways:
  • It can delay ovulation (the release of an egg from a woman's ovaries).
  • If ovulation has already taken place, it can stop a fertilised egg from implanting in the womb (or uterus)

When should you take emergency contraception?

All types of emergency contraception are more effective the sooner they are started after unprotected sex.

If you have unprotected sex and you don't want to get pregnant, you need to take the first dose of emergency pills within 120 hours (five days), but it is more effective the earlier you take it. There are several types of emergency pills that can be used.

Where do you get it?

You can get emergency contraception from:

  • Pharmacies/chemists
  • Hospitals
  • Family planning centres
  • Women's health centres
  • Sexual health centres

Even if you go to a pharmacy for the emergency contraception, instead of a doctor, you will be asked a few questions just to see if the emergency contraception is suitable for you. In some cases, the pharmacist may refer you to a doctor if they think it’s necessary.

Other things you should know

After taking the Emergency Contraceptive Pill, most women have a period at about the expected time. If your period is more than a week late, or if you have any other concerns, contact your health practitioner or a family planning centre for advice.

The Emergency Contraceptive Pill cannot be used to protect you against STI’s and is only suitable as a backup to your regular method of contraception.

The ECP can be used at any time during your menstrual cycle unless menstrual bleeding is overdue. If you are having difficulty with your usual method of contraception, you should discuss this with your doctor who will be able to tell you about other methods which might suit you better.

Most importantly, if you are feeling depressed or anxious about taking emergency contraception, have a chat to someone you trust or an experienced professional. If you have experienced sexual assault, get some info on what to do in 'What can I do if I've been sexually assaulted'.

What can I do now?

  • Talk to your pharmacist for more info.
  • Take the first dose of emergency pills within 120 hours (five days).
  • If your next period is late, take a pregnancy test.


Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
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  • brookeyy45    (1371 days ago)

    okay thankyou. Sophie-RO :)

  • Sophie-RO    (1371 days ago)

    Hey brookeyy45: I'm not 100% and could be different in each state so best to call sexual health line to get advice on that! NSW: 1800 451 624 // SA: 1300 883 793 // VIC: 1800 038 125 // WA: 1800 198 205 // TAS: 1800 675 859 // QLD: 07 3176 5881 // ACT: 02 6247 3077 // NT: 08 8948 0144

  • brookeyy45    (1371 days ago)

    at what age can you purchase the emergency pill over the counter at the pharmacy, without parental consent?