Emergency Contraception 101

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It doesn't require a prescription. You can get it at any pharmacy. The "morning after" pill, or emergency contraception is easily accessible ... so why hasn't it decreased the rates of unintended pregnancy, and why are less than 50 percent of young women in New York City - one of the largest cities in the world - aware that it even exists?

Much of the problem lies in a lack of accurate information and a number of misconceptions. In fact, the term "morning after" pill itself is a misnomer. It can be used up to 5 days after unprotected intercourse, although its effectiveness decreases as the days pass.

Here are the facts:

- A woman 17 years of age or older does NOT need to see a doctor or get a physical exam before or after taking emergency contraception;

- Emergency contraception cannot interrupt an established pregnancy and will not have an effect on the outcome of that pregnancy;

- Several studies have shown that availability of this method has not increased sexual risk-taking behavior.

When to take it

Any woman who has had unprotected intercourse can take the pill, including:

-If a condom breaks or slips off;

-If you have missed or taken your regular birth control pill late;

-If a spermicidal tablet or film has not fully dissolved;

-If you have been a victim of rape or coerced sex.

There are still some states that cite refusal clauses for not dispensing contraception or emergency contraception, so check with your doctor about the regulations in your town. It is possible to get a supply from your doctor ahead of time so that it is readily available to you if you ever need it. However, it is intended as a back-up method of contraception, not to be used regularly.

Is it safe?

Can emergency contraception increase your risk of hormone-related cancers, stroke, or the development of blood clots? Does it disrupt your menstrual cycle? Can it affect your chances of getting pregnant in the future? Check back with me next week when I'll have the answers to those questions and more ...

Dr. Tania Mucci is a senior internal medicine resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and specializes in the latest advances in primary care and general health.