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Emergency Contraception

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception (also known as EC or the morning after pill) works to prevent pregnancy in the case of unprotected intercourse. For maximum effec­tiveness, EC should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex. However, EC may be taken within 72 hours (3 days) of unpro­tected intercourse.

Who can use emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception is taken by women to prevent pregnancy, although men may purchase the medication over the counter on behalf of their female sexual partners.  Age restrictions currently vary based on the type of EC you buy.  Plan B One-Step is available over-the-counter to any man or woman, regardless of age.  Other single-dose generic versions of EC (My Way and Next Choice One Dose) and two-dose EC options (Next Choice and Levonorgestral) are available over the counter to men and women 17 or older.

You might consider using EC if:

  • You had sex without using birth control or a condom
  • You used a condom, but it slipped off or broke
  • Your diaphragm slipped out of place
  • You are late starting a new pack of birth control pills or missed several pills in a row

What are the benefits of using emergency contraception?

Intercourse dur­ing your most fertile days can result in preg­nancy up to 30% of the time. Using emergency contraception can reduce your chance of be­coming pregnant by about 75 to 89%. If you are already pregnant, EC will not end your preg­nancy.

How does emergency contraception prevent pregnancy?

EC is thought to work by preventing the egg from leaving the ovary or keeping the sperm from connecting with the egg. However, the exact mechanism is not known.  Most research suggests that EC is effective before conception occurs.

There are a number of emergency contraception options on the market, some of which are available over the counter (without a doctor's prescription).  For example, Hall Health Pharmacy carries Plan B One-Step.

  • Plan B One-Step and Next Choice One Dose consist of one pill containing a high dose of a type of synthetic hormone contained in many birth control pills.   It should be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex and is available over the counter to men and women 15 and older.
  • Next Choice and levonorgestral tablets contain the same active ingredient as Plan B One-Step, but consists of two pills.  It should also be taken within 72 hours of sex and is available without a prescription to men and women 15 and older.
  • Because most emergency contraception consists of a high dose of the hormones found in oral contraceptives, some--but not all--regularly prescribed birth control pills can also be used instead of purchasing EC.  For detailed information, consult with your clinician. Information is also available here
  • Ella is an emergency contraceptive pill that works differently than Plan B or Next Choice and contains a different active ingredient.  It is available by prescription only.

What are the side effects and risks of using emergency contraception?

No serious complications have been associated with EC. It is not indicated for women with a possible pregnancy, abnormal vaginal bleeding or an allergy to the ingredients in this medication. A pelvic exam and/or a pregnancy test may be done if you are concerned that you might be pregnant or have undiagnosed vaginal bleeding.

There is no evidence to suggest emergency contraception causes birth defects if emer­gency contraception fails or if you were already pregnant. Emergency contraception does not affect future pregnancies.

Certain drugs or herbal products (e.g., St. John's Wort) may decrease the effectiveness of EC.

Looking for emergency contraception now?

EC is approved for sale through pharmacies without a prescription.  Depending on the brand, there may or may not be age restrictions (see below).

EC is available at pharmacies in the U-District, Planned Parenthood, and Public Health Seattle & King County Clinics without a prescription to many women and men, depending on age.

Age restrictions are as follows:

  • Plan B One-Step is available over the counter at pharmacies to any man or woman, regardless of age
  • Any other type of EC (Next Choice One Dose, Next Choice, and other two-dose options) is available over the counter to anyone 17 or older
  • Ella is available by prescription only

To get any type of EC other than Plan B One-Step at a pharmacy, you will be asked to show proof that you are age 17 or over.  Any government-issued ID is acceptable proof of age and it does not need to be a photo ID. Females under the age of 17 will need a prescription for EC from their doctor, except for Plan B One-Step, which is available to anyone, regardless of age, over the counter.

If you are unable to find EC on the shelves, you will need to ask the pharmacy staff for assistance.

The Hall Health Center Pharmacy has EC available, but is only open from Monday-Friday from 8am-5pm

What if I don't have enough money to buy emergency contraception?

If you have health insurance or Medicaid (medical coupon), it's very likely that at least one form of emergency contraception is covered by your plan without any out-of-pocket cost. However, insurance companies do not typically cover over-the-counter products, so you will need a prescription. To find out more, call your insurance company and inquire.

If your insurance does not cover EC or you are uninsured, Planned Parenthood or Public Health Seattle & King County may be able to enroll you in a government program to help pay for the cost of EC. 

Instructions for taking Plan B One-Step

  1. Take the Plan B One-Step pill with food and water to reduce the risk of nausea.
  2. You might have nausea, vomiting, head­aches, dizziness or fatigue from the pill.  These symptoms are usually mild. If you do vomit within an hour after taking the pill, call your clinician or the consulting nurse. You may need to repeat the dose.
  3. You may expect to bleed as early as two or three days or as late as 21 days after taking the medication. Some women may experi­ence spotting a few days after taking Plan B One-Step. About 58% of women taking Plan B One-Step will have their next menstrual period on time or a few days early or late. If your normal period has not started in 3 weeks, return promptly to your clinician for follow-up advice and a pregnancy test.
  4. Emergency contraception is not as effective as regular birth control options and is in­tended for emergency use. It does not protect against STIs (sexually transmitted infections).  If you are not already doing so, immediately start using a more effective form of birth con­trol that you will be able to use every time you have sex. Emergency contraception is not meant for long-term, ongoing protection.  Schedule an appointment with Hall Health to discuss birth control options.  You also might consider screening for STIs.
  5. Call the Consulting Nurse if you have any further questions or concerns.

Additional resources

Hall Health's website offers information on the pill, progestin-only pills, Depo Provera, NuvaRing, the Patch, the IUD, Nexplanon and the diaphragm.  You can also find information about when you need a Pap Test, HPV, chlamydia and genital herpes. provides information about many different birth control methods

The Emergency Contraception Website, operated by Yale University, acts as a clearinghouse for information on EC.

Planned Parenthood's website offers information on the effectiveness of different birth control methods

If you have any questions and are a UW student or established Hall Health patient, you may call one of our Consulting Nurses for further information.


Authored by: Hall Health Center Women's Health Clinic staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Women's Health Clinic staff, January 2014