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Contraception health centre

Emergency contraception: Morning after pill and coil

If you've had unprotected sex, or a contraception problem such as a burst condom or forgetting to take the Pill, it isn't too late to take steps to prevent a pregnancy.

The two emergency contraception methods available are the IUD (coil or intrauterine device) and the emergency contraceptive pill, sometimes called the 'morning after pill'.

There are pros and cons with both measures. Neither provide protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) after unprotected sex.

The coil

The coil is known officially as an intrauterine device (IUD).

While emergency contraception (‘morning after pill’) pills are seen as convenient, and are available over the counter, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says the coil is the most effective method of emergency contraception.

The coil is a small, T-shaped device and is made out of copper and plastic.

A trained health professional, such as a nurse or doctor, inserts it into the uterus to help prevent an egg being fertilised or becoming implanted in the womb.

It can be fitted up to 5 days after having sex, or within 5 days of the expected ovulation day.

After emergency use, the device can stay in place as a long-term method of contraception.

Emergency contraceptive pills

There are two emergency contraceptive pill types available in the UK: 


  • Levonorgestrel (available as different brand names, for example Levonelle) 
  • Ulipristal acetate (ellaOne)


You don't have to wait until the morning after sex to take this emergency contraception pill. In fact, Levonorgestrel is more effective the sooner you take it and you should take it within 72 hours (three days) of having unprotected sex or having a contraception failure.

Levonorgestrel is a synthetic hormone that has been used in contraceptive pills for more than 35 years. However, the levels of progestogen are higher than those in birth control pills.

Different branded versions of levonorgestrel may be available on prescription and over the counter.

According to the Family Planning Association you have to be 16 or over to buy levonorgestrel from the pharmacist. They will need to ask you some questions and there are some circumstances when they may not be able to sell it to you, for example if:

  • It has been more than 72 hours since you had unprotected sex
  • You have had unprotected sex more than once in the menstrual cycle
  • You think that you might already be pregnant
  • You are taking certain prescribed or complementary medicines
  • You have certain health conditions.
  • In these circumstances you will need to see a doctor or nurse.

How does levonorgestrel work?

Depending upon where you are in your cycle, levonorgestrel may work in one of these ways:

  • It may prevent or delay ovulation.
  • It may interfere with fertilisation of an egg.
  • It is also possible that this type of emergency birth control prevents implantation of a fertilised egg in your uterus by altering its lining.

Levonorgestrel does not cause a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, it does not stop development of a foetus once the fertilised egg implants in your uterus. So it will not work if you are already pregnant when you take it.

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