Stop Stigmatizing the Morning After Pill—Experts Explain How It Really Works

Here's what actually happens to your body after taking emergency contraception.

Conversations surroundings women’s sexual health and reproductive rights can be (unfortunately) daunting, especially considering the uptick in abortion bans in the United States this year alone. For example, this past May, a law was passed in Texas that bans abortions as early as six weeks—before many even know they’re pregnant. It’s frustrating to think that in the 21st century, there are still limitations surrounding what vagina and vulva owners can do with their bodies as it relates to sex and pregnancy.

That’s why knowing all of your options is not only necessary but a form of liberation. Options, like emergency contraceptives, make it so that people have choices if an accident happens after unprotected sex. However, many of us grew up learning about emergency contraceptives as something negative. Enter: all of those movies where a single woman was shamed by her pharmacist for buying the morning-after pill. Not to mention, there are so many questions surrounding emergency contraceptions’ safety and rumors that it causes abortion, which let’s clear the air now, is a complete lie. 

Without doing your research, it can be easy to get confused about what you’re putting into your body. To get the facts straight, though, we tapped two medical professionals to learn all about emergency contraception and what actually happens to your body after taking it. Spoiler alert: it’s completely safe to take. Ahead, learn more about how emergency contraceptives work.

How do emergency contraceptives work?

There are two forms of emergency contraception, the morning-after pill (aka oral contraception) and the copper intrauterine device (IUD), which is considered the most effective method of preventing pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dr. Lucky Sekhon M.D., a fertility doctor at RMA of New York and Flo medical expert, says copper IUDs work by making the uterine cavity an inhospitable environment for an embryo—aka making sperm less able to fertilize the egg.

In addition, there are three types of contraceptive pills that you can take including, ulipristal, progestin-only, and a combination of these hormones that work to delay ovulation. When taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, the pill is 89 percent effective.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, emergency contraceptive pills can be used more than once during a single menstrual cycle and still be considered safe. That said, if you’re looking for a long-term birth control method, you shouldn’t rely on emergency contraceptives because of the potential side effects (more on that later) and it’s usually more expensive than traditional birth control. Emergency contraceptive can range anywhere from $10 to $70 for one pill.

Both forms of emergency contraceptives work to prevent pregnancy, not end a pregnancy or cause abortion. ” None of these medications interfere with an established pregnancy nor do they interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg,” says California-based gynecologist and founder of LaMaria Dr. Manuela Vazquez M.D. Abortion-inducing medication is called an abortifacient, she explains, and it works by blocking hormones necessary for maintaining a pregnancy causing the uterus to contract and empty. Emergency contraception delays or inhibits ovulation therefore preventing implantation so pregnancy does not occur.

What happens to your body after taking emergency contraception?

It’s true that there are some side effects of emergency contraceptives, but it’s short-lived, normal, expected, and still deemed safe to take by medical professionals. Many studies report that “emergency contraception is an effective way to minimize the chances of a pregnancy following unprotected intercourse.” Side effects from the pill may only last for a few days and can include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headache, vaginal bleeding, or cramps, says Dr. Vazquez.

“For the copper IUD, side effects can include abdominal or pelvic pain resulting from insertion, vaginal bleeding, and rarely uterine perforation and infection. However, these issues are generally low risk and treatable,” she adds.

As far as long-term side effects, many people fear that it can negatively impact fertility due to the high levels of hormones, and its similarity to birth control. According to Planned Parenthood, though, the hormones in emergency contraception are not in your body as long as it is with ongoing birth control, meaning it doesn’t have the same effects. Typically, emergency contraception lasts in your system for about five days. Additionally, “emergency contraception hasn’t shown to impact future fertility,” confirms Dr. Vazquez. The truth is, emergency contraceptives have been around for over 30 years, and millions of people have used them without reporting serious, negative complications

So, aside from the short-term side effects, no major changes are happening to your body from taking emergency contraceptives. If pregnancy is a concern, though, we always recommend talking to your doctor to discuss the best birth control options for you. Oh, and condoms. Condoms are good, too!