An Update on Emergency Contraception


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Am Fam Physician. 2014 Apr 1;89(7):545-550.

  Patient information: See related handout on emergency contraception written by the authors of this article.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Emergency contraception decreases the risk of unintended pregnancy after unprotected sexual intercourse or after suspected failure of routine contraception (e.g., a condom breaking). Oral methods include combined contraceptive pills (i.e., Yuzpe method), single- or split-dose levonorgestrel, and ulipristal. The Yuzpe method and levonorgestrel are U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved for use 72 hours postcoitus, whereas the newest method, ulipristal, is approved for up to 120 hours postcoitus. The copper intrauterine device may be used as emergency contraception up to seven days after unprotected intercourse. It is nonhormonal and has the added benefit of long-term contraception. Advanced provision of emergency contraception may be useful for all patients, and for persons using ulipristal because it is available only by prescription. Physicians should counsel patients on the use and effectiveness of emergency contraception, the methods available, and the benefits of routine and consistent contraception use.

Emergency contraception has the potential to prevent more than 3 million unintended pregnancies in the United States each year.1,2 Each method has a different level of effectiveness depending on the timeliness of use. Although it can be effective up to 120 hours postcoitus, it is most effective within the first 12 hours after unprotected intercourse or if the routine contraception method fails (e.g., a condom breaking).2,3

The use of emergency contraception has increased significantly, with more than 5 million women reporting use at least once between 2006 and 2008.1 This may be largely because of increased availability. In 2006, levonorgestrel was approved for over-the-counter use in women 18 years and older, and in 2009, the age was lowered to include those 17 years of age.4,5 Most recently, in 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that Plan B One-Step, a single-dose levonorgestrel product, is available over the counter without age restrictions.6 However, the generic single-dose and the split-dose levonorgestrel are still behind the counter for those 17 years or older, and available by prescription only to those 16 years or younger.7

There are four methods of emergency contraception currently approved by the FDA: combined oral contraceptive pills (i.e., Yuzpe method), progestin-only pills containing levonorgestrel, ulipristal (Ella), and the copper intrauterine device (IUD; Paragard). Table 1 provides information on dosing and cost.8

View/Print Table

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

Ulipristal (Ella) is marginally more effective than levonorgestrel at preventing unintended pregnancy within 72 hours postcoitus. Levonorgestrel appears to be equally effective in the single- and split-dose regimens.

A

12

The copper intrauterine device is the most effective method of emergency contraception and can be considered by women who are not at high risk of sexually transmitted infections and who desire long-term contraception.

A

12

There is no absolute contraindication to the use of oral emergency contraception, with the exception of pregnancy.

C

28

Advanced provision of emergency contraception increases the rate and timeliness of use, and does not increase the rate of sexually transmitted infections or change the use of routine contraceptive methods.

C

3335


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

Ulipristal (Ella) is marginally more effective than levonorgestrel at preventing unintended pregnancy within 72 hours postcoitus. Levonorgestrel appears to be equally effective in the single- and split-dose regimens.

A

12

The copper intrauterine device is the most effective method of emergency contraception and can be considered by women who are not at high risk of sexually transmitted infections and who desire long-term contraception.

A

12

There is no absolute contraindication to the use of oral emergency contraception, with the exception of pregnancy.

C

28

Advanced provision of emergency contraception increases the rate and timeliness of use, and does not increase the rate of sexually transmitted infections or change the use of routine contraceptive methods.

C

3335


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

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BEST PRACTICES IN GYNECOLOGY – RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE CHOOSING WISELY CAMPAIGN

RecommendationSponsoring organization

Do not require a pelvic exam or other physical exam to prescribe oral contraceptive medications.

American Academy of Family Physicians


Source: For supporting citations, see http://www.aafp.org/afp/cw-table.pdf. For more information on the Choosing Wisely Campaign, see http://www.aafp.org/afp/choosingwisely. To search Choosing Wisely recommendations relevant to primary care, see http://www.aafp.org/afp/recommendations/search.htm.

BEST PRACTICES IN GYNECOLOGY – RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE CHOOSING WISELY CAMPAIGN

RecommendationSponsoring organization

Do not require a pelvic exam or other physical exam to prescribe oral contraceptive medications.

American Academy of Family Physicians


Source: For supporting citations, see http://www.aafp.org/afp/cw-table.pdf. For more information on the Choosing Wisely Campaign, see http://www.aafp.org/afp/choosingwisely. To search Choosing Wisely recommendations relevant to primary care, see http://www.aafp.org/afp/recommendations/search.htm.

View/Print Table

Table 1.

Comparison of Emergency Contraceptive Methods

MethodDosageAvailabilityCost*

Combined oral contraceptive

100 mcg of ethinyl estradiol plus 0.5 mg of levonorgestrel; two doses taken 12 hours apart

Prescription only

$30 to $40 (varies by brand)

Levonorgestrel, split dose

0.75 mg; two doses taken at the same time or 12 hours apart

Behind the counter for those 17 years or older; prescription required for those 16 years or younger

$30 to $40

Levonorgestrel, single dose

1.5 mg, single dose

Plan B One-Step: over the counter; no age restrictions

$20 to $40

Generic: behind the counter for those 17 years or older; prescription required for those 16 years or younger

Ulipristal (Ella)

30 mg, single dose

Prescription only

$40 to $50

Intrauterine copper device (Paragard)

Single device

Available for placement only in a medical office setting

$754 plus office visit†


*—Estimated retail price based on information obtained at http://www.goodrx.com (accessed August 12, 2013) and http://ec.princeton.edu (accessed October 10, 2013).

†—Price information obtained at http://www.paragard.com (accessed October 10, 2013).

Information from reference 8.

Table 1.

Comparison of Emergency Contraceptive Methods

MethodDosageAvailabilityCost*

Combined oral contraceptive

100 mcg of ethinyl estradiol plus 0.5 mg of levonorgestrel; two doses taken 12 hours apart

Prescription only

$30 to $40 (varies by brand)

Levonorgestrel, split dose

0.75 mg; two doses taken at the same time or 12 hours apart

Behind the counter for those 17 years or older; prescription required for those 16 years or younger

$30 to $40

Levonorgestrel, single dose

1.5 mg, single dose

Plan B One-Step: over the counter; no age restrictions

$20 to $40

Generic: behind the counter for those 17 years or older; prescription required for those 16 years or younger

Ulipristal (Ella)

30 mg, single dose

Prescription only

$40 to $50

Intrauterine copper device (Paragard)

Single device

Available for placement only in a medical office setting

$754 plus office visit†


*—Estimated retail price based on information obtained at http://www.goodrx.com (accessed August 12, 2013) and http://ec.princeton.edu (accessed October 10, 2013).

†—Price information obtained at http://www.paragard.com (accessed October 10, 2013).

Information from reference 8.

Yuzpe Method

The Yuzpe method consists of two doses of a combination estrogen/progestin oral contraceptive (100 mcg ethinyl estradiol and 1 mg dl-norgestrel [equivalent to 0.5 mg levonorgestrel]) taken 12 hours apart.9  This regimen offers a convenient method for patients to use pills they already have. Dosing regimens for several common combination oral contraceptives are listed in Table 2.8 This method is 56% to 86% effective, depending on the timeliness of use after unprotected intercourse; it is most effective when used within 72 hours, and is less effective when used 72 to 120 hours after unprotected intercourse.3

Because women present for emergency contraception at various times in their menstrual cycle, the expected pregnancy rate is 4% without the Yuzpe method and 2% with it.10 The number needed to treat to prevent one pregnancy is 50.10 This method works primarily by preventing ovulation, although it theoretically could prevent implantation.11 Nausea and vomiting are the most common adverse effects, and physicians may consider recommending an antiemetic before use.12,13

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Table 2.

Yuzpe Method: Oral Contraceptives Used for Emergency Contraception

BrandPills per dose*Ethinyl estradiol per dose (mcg)Levonorgestrel per dose (mg)

Altavera

Four peach

120

0.60

Amethia

Four white

120

0.60

Amethia Lo

Five white

100

0.50

Amethyst

Six white

120

0.54

Aviane

Five orange

100

0.50

Camrese

Four light blue-green

120

0.60

Camrese Lo

Five orange

100

0.50

Cryselle

Four white

120

0.60

Enpresse

Four orange

120

0.50

Introvale

Four peach

120

0.60

Jolessa

Four pink

120

0.60

Lessina

Five pink

100

0.50

Levora

Four white

120

0.60

Lo/Ovral

Four white

120

0.60

Loseasonique

Five orange

100

0.50

Low-Ogestrel

Four white

120

0.60

Lutera

Five white

100

0.50

Ogestrel

Two white

100

0.50

Portia

Four pink

120

0.60

Quasense

Four white

120

0.60

Seasonique

Four light blue-green

120

0.60

Sronyx

Five white

100

0.50

Trivora

Four pink

120

0.50


*—Two doses taken 12 hours apart, beginning as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. Dosage based on standard dosing of 100 mcg of ethinyl estradiol and 0.5 mg of levonorgestrel.

Adapted with permission from the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. The Emergency Contraception Website. Answers to frequently asked questions about types of emergency contraception. Updated August 26, 2013. http://ec.princeton.edu/questions/dose.html. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Table 2.

Yuzpe Method: Oral Contraceptives Used for Emergency Contraception

BrandPills per dose*Ethinyl estradiol per dose (mcg)Levonorgestrel per dose (mg)

Altavera

Four peach

120

0.60

Amethia

Four white

120

0.60

Amethia Lo

Five white

100

0.50

Amethyst

Six white

120

0.54

Aviane

Five orange

100

0.50

Camrese

Four light blue-green

120

0.60

Camrese Lo

Five orange

100

0.50

Cryselle

Four white

120

0.60

Enpresse

Four orange

120

0.50

Introvale

Four peach

120

0.60

Jolessa

Four pink

120

0.60

Lessina

Five pink

100

0.50

Levora

Four white

120

0.60

Lo/Ovral

Four white

120

0.60

Loseasonique

Five orange

100

0.50

Low-Ogestrel

Four white

120

0.60

Lutera

Five white

100

0.50

Ogestrel

Two white

100

0.50

Portia

Four pink

120

0.60

Quasense

Four white

120

0.60

Seasonique

Four light blue-green

120

0.60

Sronyx

Five white

100

0.50

Trivora

Four pink

120

0.50


*—Two doses taken 12 hours apart, beginning as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. Dosage based on standard dosing of 100 mcg of ethinyl estradiol and 0.5 mg of levonorgestrel.

Adapted with permission from the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. The Emergency Contraception Website. Answers to frequently asked questions about types of emergency contraception. Updated August 26, 2013. http://ec.princeton.edu/questions/dose.html. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Levonorgestrel

Levonorgestrel can be taken as a single dose of 1.5 mg or two 0.75-mg doses taken at the same time or 12 hours apart within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse.14,15 There is decreased effectiveness as time passes after unprotected intercourse. The effectiveness ranges from 58% to 79%.15,16 The expected pregnancy rate of 4% decreases to less than 2% after use of levonorgestrel.10 The number needed to treat to prevent one pregnancy is 43.10 Single-dose levonorgestrel has similar effectiveness as the split-dose regimen.12,17 Single and split dosing were found to be equally effective at preventing unintended pregnancy, even with additional acts of unprotected intercourse.12 Levonorgestrel works by interfering with the luteinizing hormone peak during the cycle.18,19 When levonorgestrel was given before the peak, it was effective at preventing ovulation, but it did not prevent pregnancy if ovulation and fertilization had already occurred.18,20 Levonorgestrel use may cause an earlier onset of menstrual bleeding, headache, fatigue, dizziness, back pain, and dysmenorrhea.15,21

Ulipristal

Available since December 2010, ulipristal is a progesterone receptor modulator and the newest FDA-approved medication for emergency contraception. The dosing is a single 30-mg tablet taken within 120 hours of unprotected intercourse.22 It is the first oral emergency contraception that has proven effective for late intake (i.e., 96 to 120 hours postcoitus).22 One study evaluated ulipristal at three postcoital time intervals of 48 to 72 hours, 72 to 96 hours, and 96 to 120 hours; effectiveness rates were 62%, 58%, and 75%, respectively.22 When taken within 72 hours, ulipristal has similar effectiveness to the single- and split-dose levonorgestrel; however, it maintains a higher degree of effectiveness between 72 and 120 hours.12,21 Ulipristal works by binding to progesterone receptors, and subsequently inhibiting or delaying ovulation. Unlike levonorgestrel, ulipristal is effective regardless of the luteinizing hormone peak.22 When taken before ovulation, it was more effective than levonorgestrel at preventing ovulation, and it delayed ovulation by as much as five days.23 Ulipristal can delay the onset of menses up to five days, and can also cause headache, fatigue, dizziness, back pain, and dysmenorrhea.21

Copper IUD

For patients desiring long-term contraception, as well as emergency contraception, a copper IUD may be placed up to seven days after unprotected intercourse.24,25 When placed after unprotected intercourse, the copper IUD has a failure rate of 0.09%.12,24 The copper IUD is nonhormonal and continuously releases copper into the uterine cavity.24,25 It prevents pregnancy by interfering with fertilization and preventing implantation. There is a lack of studies comparing its effectiveness with any of the aforementioned regimens.12 However, there are no increased risks associated with the copper IUD when used for emergency contraception compared with usual use.25  Table 3 compares the effectiveness of common methods of contraception with emergency contraception.3,12,16,26,27

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Table 3.

Effectiveness of Common Methods of Contraception

Types of contraceptionEffectiveness as commonly used (%)

Permanent sterilization (male and female)

> 99

Intrauterine device (copper and levonorgestrel)

> 99

Hormonal implants

> 99

Progestin-only injectables

97

Combined oral contraceptives

92

Patch

91

Intravaginal ring

91

Progestin-only pills

90 to 97

Diaphragm

88

Male condoms

85

Female condoms

79

Sponge

76 to 88

Fertility awareness–based methods

76

Withdrawal method

73

Spermicides

72

No method

15

Emergency contraception

Copper intrauterine device

> 99

Ulipristal (Ella)

> 85

Combined (Yuzpe method)

56 to 86

Levonorgestrel

52 to 85


Information from references 3, 12, 16, 26, and 27.

Table 3.

Effectiveness of Common Methods of Contraception

Types of contraceptionEffectiveness as commonly used (%)

Permanent sterilization (male and female)

> 99

Intrauterine device (copper and levonorgestrel)

> 99

Hormonal implants

> 99

Progestin-only injectables

97

Combined oral contraceptives

92

Patch

91

Intravaginal ring

91

Progestin-only pills

90 to 97

Diaphragm

88

Male condoms

85

Female condoms

79

Sponge

76 to 88

Fertility awareness–based methods

76

Withdrawal method

73

Spermicides

72

No method

15

Emergency contraception

Copper intrauterine device

> 99

Ulipristal (Ella)

> 85

Combined (Yuzpe method)

56 to 86

Levonorgestrel

52 to 85


Information from references 3, 12, 16, 26, and 27.

Teratogenicity and Contraindications

There have been no reported cases of birth defects from the use of oral emergency contraception. Investigation into the harms of high-dose contraception showed no risk to an already established pregnancy.12 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's U.S. Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use, 2010, no conditions strictly prohibit the use of oral emergency contraception, with the exception of pregnancy.28 Because the duration of use for emergency contraception is substantially less than for routine contraception, the potential risk of adverse effects is also reduced.28

The same contraindications exist for the copper IUD whether used as emergency or routine contraception.25 In cases of sexual assault, if the patient is considered at high risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, a copper IUD is not recommended.28 However, an IUD could be considered if the patient is adequately screened for sexually transmitted infections and if the insertion criteria are met as outlined in the Physician's Desk Reference.25

There is insufficient evidence to recommend against the use of emergency contraception in women with a body mass index greater than 30 kg per m2; however, preliminary studies show that women with obesity may have a significantly higher failure rate when using levonorgestrel or ulipristal.29

Resuming Contraception

Although emergency contraception reduces the risk of pregnancy following intercourse, routine contraception is most effective (Table 3).3,12,16,26,27 All patients who use levonorgestrel and ulipristal for emergency contraception should be encouraged to begin or continue a regular birth control method because a rapid return to fertility is expected.30,31 Patients may start using routine hormonal contraception according to usual prescribing methods immediately after the use of emergency contraception. The prescribing information for ulipristal recommends the use of a reliable barrier method of contraception with subsequent acts of intercourse in the same menstrual cycle because ulipristal may reduce the contraceptive action of hormonal contraception.30 Women who use any form of emergency contraception and do not start menses within seven days of the expected time should see a physician to be evaluated for possible pregnancy.30

Access

Access to emergency contraception was broadened in August 2006, when the FDA approved nonprescription access to levonorgestrel for women 18 years and older.4 In March 2009, a federal court issued an order directing the FDA to make levonorgestrel available to those 17 years or older without a prescription.5 Currently, there is a distinction between single- and split-dose levonorgestrel. Single-dose Plan B One-Step is now available over the counter without age restriction. The split-dose and generic single-dose options are still available behind the counter for those 17 years or older, and by prescription only for those 16 years or younger.7 Ulipristal is available by prescription only; the copper IUD is available for placement only in a medical office setting.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia require hospitals or health care facilities to provide information about or to initiate emergency contraception therapy to women who have been sexually assaulted.32 These include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Advanced Provision

Advanced provision of emergency contraception (i.e., providing patients with prescriptions or pills before the need for use) has been shown to increase the rate and timeliness of use in young women and adolescents.3335 Advanced provision and use does not increase the rates of sexually transmitted infections or of unprotected intercourse, or change the use of routine contraception. It is useful for patients who prefer ulipristal and for adolescents younger than 17 years who use the single- or split-dose levonorgestrel. Despite allowing women and adolescents to use emergency contraception in a timelier manner, advanced provision has not led to decreased rates of pregnancy.3335

Although some methods of emergency contraception are now available without a prescription, most patients do not know how to use it correctly or how to obtain it.36 The American Academy of Family Physicians' policy on contraceptive advice states that physicians should provide patient education and counseling to men and women to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies. This includes information about abstinence, and the provision of routine and emergency contraception. It also includes the discussion of all forms of contraception, where to obtain them, and the reliability of each.37

Data Sources: A PubMed search was completed using key terms contraception, postcoital, and emergency. Also searched were the Cochrane database and National Guideline Clearinghouse database. Search dates: July and September 2011, and October 2013.

The Authors

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MICHELE C. BOSWORTH, MD, is an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler (UTHSCT) Family Medicine Residency Program, where she also serves as the co-chief medical information officer....

PATTI L. OLUSOLA, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the UTHSCT Family Medicine Residency Program.

SARAH B. LOW, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the UTHSCT Family Medicine Residency Program. At the time the manuscript was written, Dr. Low was chief resident of the UTHSCT Family Medicine Residency Program.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Address correspondence to Michele C. Bosworth, MD, University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, 11937 US Hwy. 271, Tyler, TX 75708 (e-mail: Michele.Bosworth@uthct.edu). Reprints are not available from the authors.

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4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves over-the-counter access for Plan B for women 18 and older: prescription remains required for those 17 and under. August 24, 2006. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2006/ucm108717.htm. Accessed October 20, 2011.

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30. Ella (ulipristal acetate) tablet [prescribing information]. Morristown, N.J.: Watson Pharma, Inc.; August 2010. http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2010/022474s000lbl.pdf. Accessed September 29, 2013.

31. Plan B One-Step (levonorgestrel) tablet, 1.5 mg, for oral use [prescribing information]. Pomona, NY: Gedeon Richter, Ltd; August 2009. http://www.planbonestep.com/pdf/PlanBOneStepFullProductInformation.pdf. Accessed June 11, 2012.

32. Guttmacher Institute. State policies in brief: emergency contraception. September 1, 2013. http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_EC.pdf. Accessed September 22, 2013.

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