Here at Byrdie HQ, our health—mental, sexual, reproductive, and the like—is always top of mind. That said, women’s health has historically been a topic either buried in controversy or ignored altogether. So, this year, we’re taking Women’s Health Week as an opportunity to serve up helpful information, product recommendations, and science-backed tips to better understand the inner-workings of our bodies. Find anything from what to eat when you have your period to exactly what happens when you take the morning after pill (and much, much more).
Education surrounding women's sexual and reproductive health can get cloudy, and it's difficult to know who or what to believe. Such is the case with information regarding abortions, birth control, and emergency contraception. Personally, I grew up believing birth control solved every problem—skin concerns, heavy bleeding, unwanted pregnancy, irregular periods, and cramps. At least that's what was reported to us at 14, and all my friends began taking it. Now, we know otherwise. While birth control can help with some of those issues, it's far more complicated than a magical cure-all.
The same goes with Plan B. I was told emergency contraception would ravage my body, and though it was certainly a means to an end, to be very cautious about taking it (and certainly not to take it too often). All of this just goes to show how much further we need to go to get to a place where women are given all the information and shame is no longer hurtled in our direction when we ask for it.
So I reached out to a few experts to break down exactly what we need to know about the morning-after pill: what happens to our bodies when we take it, if it'll negatively affect fertility, and what the side effects will be. Below, find their answers.
Plan B is an emergency contraceptive—not an abortion pill
Emergency contraception does come in different forms. However, most often, "the morning-after pill" refers to Plan B One-Step (and generics like Next Choice One Dose) that come with a single pill and can be purchased over the counter at the drugstore. "The Plan B pill is a form of emergency contraception that can either prevent or delay ovulation. It can also stop an egg from undergoing fertilization or prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine lining," explains Michelle Metz, a general ob-gyn.
"It consists of a medication called levonorgestrel, which is similar to the hormone progesterone," adds Zev Williams, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Columbia University Medical Center. "Ovulation, which refers to the release of an egg from the ovary, occurs when the brain releases a hormone, called luteinizing hormone. The LH travels through the blood from the brain to the ovary and signals the egg to be released," Williams says. Plan B prevents LH from being released and thereby prevents ovulation.
No ovulation = no egg = no fertilization. Additionally, emergency contraception makes it much less likely you'll get pregnant but doesn't terminate an existing pregnancy. The abortion pill contains a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol.
After taking it, you'll probably experience side effects
Some women experience nausea, vomiting, or headache, while others experience no side effects at all. "Breast tenderness (progesterone causes the milk glands to swell), bloating, mood swings (caused by hormonal fluctuation), sleepiness, and/or dizziness are common after taking emergency contraception," Williams says. "Another way to think about it is this: If a pregnancy occurs, progesterone is produced in the placenta and levels remain elevated throughout the pregnancy—so if you're taking a progesterone pill, you're getting all the symptoms of pregnancy," he adds.
It's much more effective if you take it within 24 hours, but, according to Metz you can take emergency contraception up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. "In order for the morning-after pill to work, it has to be taken before ovulation has occurred," continues Williams. Data shows that after fertilization has happened, the morning-after pill won't prevent the embryo from developing, traveling through the fallopian tube, or implanting in the uterus. "Ella, an emergency contraceptive that requires a prescription, can be taken for up to five days following unprotected sex, instructs Williams.
Taking it may affect your period
Plan B can make your next period come late or early, and generally, it will be much heavier with more days of bleeding. "If your period doesn't come, the first thing you should do is take a pregnancy test," says Metz.
There is mixed evidence regarding weight
Admittedly, I had no idea there were discussions around if a woman's weight skews the morning-after pill's effectiveness. It wasn't until a reader (shout out to Emily) wrote in to illuminate the issue that I saw any research on it whatsoever. A 2011 study found some evidence to support that a woman's weight (specifically over 165 pounds) does affect the efficacy of the pill. That said, a 2017 study concluded BMI had no such impact. The FDA reported they have no plans to include a warning label on the package—due to conflicting evidence and limited research.
Still, it is important to have all the information to be able to make informed decisions.
You can't take emergency contraception "too many" times
"All the rumors you hear about [the morning-after pill] are completely untrue," Charlotte Wilken-Jensen, head of the Gynecology and Obstetrics Department at Hvidovre Hospital in Denmark told Broadly. "Every formula of the morning-after pill advises you to take it only once every cycle, but really, you can safely take it anytime you have unprotected intercourse. Of course, if you take it more than once, your risks of side effects increase." Essentially, taking the morning-after pill is akin to taking a bunch of birth control pills all at once.
While you probably won't feel great, it won't negatively affect your health or fertility. "In the past, women who needed emergency contraception would just take a super-high dose of birth control, but the estrogen just caused a lot of nausea and vomiting," Alyssa Dweck, a board-certified ob-gyn and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V, told BuzzFeed Health. "It's very safe and well-tolerated, even in women who aren't able to take some birth control pills because of clotting disorders."
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.