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How Does Emergency Contraception Work?

There are many different ways in which to prevent pregnancy, including oral contraceptives, patches, rings, injections and condoms. However, not all of these methods are completely 100% fail-safe, which is why the need for an emergency contraceptive method may arise. Emergency contraceptive methods or morning-after pills aren't used all the time, but they are high dose tablets or devices that can help prevent pregnancy after unprotected sexual intercourse, provided it's used as soon as possible after it occurs.

Popular emergency contraceptives include the oral medications ellaOne and Levonelle, but there is also the option of using a method such as the IUD. ellaOne can be taken up to 120 hours after unprotected sex and Levonelle up to 72 hours. The IUD is a T-shaped device that can be inserted into the womb within five days (120 hours) after unprotected sexual intercourse and works by releasing copper into the reproductive system, which ultimately changes the womb environment and prevents pregnancy.

The menstrual cycle

Throughout your menstrual cycle, a number of different hormones are released at different stages, which regulates when you are able to conceive and when you are not. This is why it is helpful to know what happens during the menstrual cycle when understanding how the morning-after pill works.

The menstrual cycle

Just after you finish your period, the pituitary gland releases a hormone known as the follicle-stimulating hormone which signals to the ovaries that it's time to prepare a primary follicle for ovulation.

At the start of the menstrual process, when a follicle develops as part of the ovulation process, it releases a hormone known as oestrogen, which causes the womb lining to prepare itself to receive an egg.

The start of the menstrual cycle is also when the body starts producing progestogen, which it continues producing for the next two weeks. As the egg develops, oestrogen increases in the blood and signals the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release the luteinizing hormone (LH), which causes the release of an egg down the fallopian tube.

This happens within a 24-hour window and, if an egg is fertilised, it then attaches itself to the thickened uterine lining. However, if the egg isn't fertilised, menstruation starts around two weeks after ovulation and the cycle repeats itself.

So during a women's cycle, she is only fertile for a few days, however sperm can live within the body for many days, so even if you have unprotected sexual intercourse prior to ovulation, pregnancy is still possible.

How the morning-after pill influences the body

The morning after pill works inside the body to provide effective protection, because it's able to influence certain functions during the menstrual cycle. Although both elleOne and Levonelle contain different types of ingredients, both medications work in a similar way to stop pregnancy.

How it works
Female Reproductive System

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