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Emergency contraception

Emergency contraception contains a special dose of oral contraceptive pills.

If you’ve had unprotected sex, either because you didn’t use contraception or something went wrong, it can reduce the chances of pregnancy.

White and red flowersSometimes it’s called the ‘”morning after pill” but, that can be misleading. It’s actually effective for up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

How does emergency contraception work?

Emergency contraception can work in following ways:

  • Ovulation (release of an egg) may be delayed
  • Slows down the passage of the egg through the fallopian tube
  • Slows down the passage of sperm
  • Creates hormone changes in the lining of the womb so that a fertilised egg cannot attach itself and passes unnoticed out of the body in the menstrual flow
  • Failure rate depends on where the woman is in her cycle and how soon after intercourse.

A tablet containing a progestogen hormone (levonorgestrel – Levonelle) is most commonly used.

Remember, all types of emergency contraception are more effective the sooner they’re started after unprotected sex.

If you have unprotected sex and don’t want to get pregnant, you should take the first dose of emergency pills within 72 hours (three days). But, it’s more effective the earlier you take it.

You should keep using other contraception, e.g. the pill or condoms, for the rest of your menstrual cycle until your next period.

This is in case you ovulate AFTER taking emergency contraception.

Without continual protection you could still become pregnant if this happens.

Where can you buy it?

Since February 2011, emergency contraception has been available at pharmacies in Ireland without a prescription. Talk to a pharmacist about your options and see if it’s something you should be taking.

You’ll be asked about any other medications you’re taking and the possible side effects will be explained.

You may feel a little sick after taking it. If you throw up, seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist immediately because the drug may not have taken effect.

You can also get emergency contraception from your GP, or your local sexual health clinic.

If you’re worried about taking emergency contraception, talk a sexual health nurse or a doctor. See face to face help for more.

When to expect your period

Most women have a period at their normal time after taking emergency contraception.

If your period is more than a week late, or if you have other concerns, contact your doctor or go to a sexual health clinic (see Think Contraception for a directory).


Emergency contraception should be used for emergencies only. It’s not meant to be used as a regular form of contraception.

Also, it does not protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

If you don’t have a regular method of contraception, talk to your doctor to find out what might suit you best.

If you used emergency contraception because a condom has broken, ask about the best ways to prevent this from happening again.


If you’ve taken emergency contraception after unprotected sex, you still need to get tested for STIs.

If you’re concerned, talk to your local doctor or go to a sexual health clinic. See your sexual health for more on getting an STI test.


If you do need emergency contraception, you might want your partner, friend or parent to go with you to the doctor or a sexual health clinic for support.

These situations can be stressful and it can be helpful to have someone else supporting you through the experience. You can also freetext LIST to 50444 to get a list of services available to you, sent by the Crisis Pregnancy Programme.

If you feel anxious or depressed afterwards, see a counsellor to talk through your feelings.

Sexual assault

If you’ve experienced a sexual assault, go to a rape crisis centre where you can receive counselling and support.

For more information, check Rape Crisis Network Ireland. Read a Well Woman Centre factsheet on emergency contraception here.

This article was last reviewed on 03 May 2017

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