Emergency contraception

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

A woman can use emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex, or if a method of contraception has failed.

There are two methods of emergency contraception:

  • the emergency contraceptive pill (the morning-after pill)
  • the copper intrauterine device (IUD)

Both of these methods are very effective at preventing pregnancy if they are used soon after unprotected sex.

Emergency contraceptive pill

The effectiveness of the emergency contraceptive pill decreases over time. If it is taken within 24 hours of having unprotected sex, it prevents 95% of pregnancies.

Most women can use the emergency contraceptive pill, including women who are breastfeeding and those who cannot usually use hormonal contraception (such as the combined pill or contraceptive patch).

The emergency contraceptive pill should not be used as a regular method of contraception.

From 1 July 2017 medical card holders will be able to get the ECP free from their pharmacy without a prescription, however they will still be able to go to their GP for a prescription if they wish.

What happens if a pharmacy or pharmacist will not provide ECP or other treatment?

The situation may arise where a pharmacist is not able to provide emergency contraception or other treatment, or has personal reasons for not wishing to do so.  The statutory code of conduct for pharmacists requires that, where they unable to provide a service, they take reasonable action to ensure the patient’s care is not jeopardised. In practice, the patient should be referred to another pharmacist, pharmacy or health service.

For more information, see the Health A-Z topic on the emergency contraceptive pill.

Copper intrauterine device (IUD)

The copper intrauterine device (IUD) is a small, plastic and copper device that can be fitted into your womb by a doctor or nurse within five days of having unprotected sex.

The IUD stops sperm from reaching an egg and fertilising it. It is the most effective method of emergency contraception and prevents up to 99% of pregnancies.

Most women can use the IUD for emergency contraception. It is particularly suitable if:

  • you cannot or do not want to take hormones
  • you are taking certain medication, such as epilepsy drugs
  • you want to use the IUD as an ongoing method of contraception

See the Health A-Z topic on the intrauterine device (IUD) for further information.

Useful Links

If you have suffered an injury (needle stick or other sharps injury, sexual exposure, human bites, exposure of broken skin or of mucous membranes) where there is a risk of transmission of blood borne viruses and other infections, further information on how to manage your situation is at: www.emitoolkit.ie

Had unprotected sex?

Acting quickly and using emergency contraception after unprotected sex will usually prevent a pregnancy. The emergency contraceptive pill is available free from:

  • your GP
  • any family planning clinic
  • some pharmacies
  • any genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or sexual health clinic
  • some hospital accident and emergency (A&E) departments

The emergency contraceptive pill can also be bought from pharmacies and some private clinics.

The IUD can be fitted at:

  • GP surgeries
  • family planning clinics

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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