Morning-After Pill Still Strong

June 20 marks the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of over-the-counter Plan B One-Step, a type of “morning-after pill” (itself a type of emergency contraception), without age restrictions. The first morning-after pill was approved by the FDA in 1998, but political backlash prevented easy access to it for more than a decade.

In 2011, the FDA was poised to approve over-the-counter access for Plan B for people 17 and older. The Department of Health and Human Services intervened, raising concerns that young girls might not be able to use the drug safely — even though studies have shown that Plan B is safer than taking an aspirin. The Obama administration, however, claimed that younger people still needed a prescription to ensure they understood the proper use of Plan B.

Access to Plan B gives teenagers another chance to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

The wrangling continued. In early April 2013, a federal district court judge dismissed that claim, stating that the Obama administration’s restrictions were a “politically-motivated effort to avoid riling religious groups and others opposed to making birth control available to girls.” On April 30, the FDA announced that the morning-after pill would be available without prescription to users 15 years of age and older.

The fight to expand over-the-counter access for the morning-after pill wasn’t over. Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, stated that “over-the-counter access to emergency contraceptive products has the potential to further decrease the rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States.” It wasn’t until June 2013 — five short years ago this week — that the FDA approved Plan B One-Step for over-the-counter sale without age restrictions, after the Department of Justice dropped its appeal. In February 2014, certain generic morning-after pills were similarly approved.

Today, let’s celebrate this expanded access to the morning-after pill by reviewing what we need to know about this important form of contraception.

The morning-after pill is similar to other forms of hormonal birth control.

The morning-after pill works the same way other forms of hormonal birth control do — by stopping ovulation.

You don’t need a doctor’s prescription to buy over-the-counter medication.

The FDA made the morning-after pill available without a prescription for the same reason you don’t need a prescription to buy an antihistamine or a calcium carbonate antacid — because multiple studies have shown that the morning-after pill is very safe. Nausea is the most common side effect (if you vomit within a few hours of taking the pill, you may need to retake the dose).

Plan B is more effective the sooner you take it.

Levonorgestrel is the generic pharmaceutical name for the active ingredient in morning-after pills with the brand names Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One-Dose, Take Action, My Way, and AfterPill. These types of pills can lower your chance of getting pregnant by 75 to 89 percent if you take it within three days of unprotected sex. You can take the morning-after pill up to five days after unprotected sex, but the longer you wait to take levonorgestrel, the less effective it is.

Ulipristal acetate is the generic name for the active ingredient in another type of morning-after pill, ella, which unlike Plan B and its generic equivalents is only available by prescription. ella lowers your chances of getting pregnant by 85 percent if you take it within five days of unprotected sex, and it works just as well on Day 1 as it does on Day 5.

No form of medication (whether we’re talking about allergy meds or contraceptive methods) is 100 percent effective. You don’t need a follow-up exam after using the morning-after pill, but if you do not have your period within three weeks of taking it, you should see a health-care provider for a pregnancy test.

The morning-after pill is not the same as an abortion.

Contraception prevents pregnancy. Medication abortion, or the abortion pill, terminates pregnancy. The morning-after pill needs to be taken within three to five days, depending on the pill you take, to prevent pregnancy. Once an egg is released from the ovaries, the morning-after pill is no longer effective at preventing pregnancy. The manufacturers of Plan-B and ella are very clear that their pills do not end a pregnancy.

There are several types of morning-after pills.

Morning-after pills have many generic and brand names. These include:

  • Plan B One-Step (levonorgestrel)
  • Take Action (levonorgestrel)
  • Next Choice One-Dose (levonorgestrel)
  • My Way (levonorgestrel)
  • ella (ulipristal acetate)

This article from Cosmopolitan has information about different types of birth control and emergency contraception, including cost and potential side effects. You can find the morning-after pill in the same aisle as condoms at your local pharmacy. If you’re hesitant about purchasing the morning-after-pill at the pharmacy, Planned Parenthood is another good option