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How to Talk to Your Teenagers About Emergency Contraception

Created: 09/17/2013
Last Updated: 03/11/2014

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Now that emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) are available over-the-counter to everyone, regardless of age, you may want to consider how you will talk to your kids about this contraceptive option.

Emergency contraception, as with all contraception, is a very personal choice. But, now that teenagers have access to ECPs, it's important that parents be prepared to discuss it—or at least to answer questions.

Following a federal court ruling in June 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration quickly moved to make ECPs available without a prescription to people of all ages. These pills likely will be in the family planning aisles of most pharmacies by fall of 2013.

How will this monumental decision affect you and your family? If you have children who are having sex or may be in the near future, it's smart to include emergency contraception in any talks you have with them about the "birds and the bees."

Talking about sex with your kids should start as early as you think it's appropriate, or when they start asking questions, and should continue as your kids mature. The talk isn’t a one-time event. Keep the conversation flowing throughout the years so that your kids feel comfortable coming to you with questions or problems. Your discussion will likely include the importance of using if they have sex, the risks of pregnancy, possible sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and an explanation of the available birth control methods and emergency contraception.

Both boys and girls should know about the options, because both are responsible for having safe sex or dealing with the consequences when they don’t.

When discussing emergency contraception, be sure to tell your teen that it should be a backup plan, not a form of birth control. Also emphasize that it can’t protect against STDs, like herpes, chlamydia and HIV/AIDS.

Let your kids know that you won't be upset if they come to you in an emergency situation. Teens can buy emergency contraceptives without telling you, but keeping an open line of communication will ease their fears if they have questions or need help.

Here are some common questions that can help you provide answers and guide your family’s discussion.

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception is a form of birth control you would use to try to prevent pregnancy after already having sex. It's a good option for women who have had unprotected sex, experienced a birth control failure or were raped.

What constitutes a birth control failure? Some examples include:

  • If a condom tears or slips off
  • If a diaphragm or cervical cap moves, tears or is removed too soon
  • If birth control pills are not taken on the correct schedule
  • If a birth control injection is given more than two weeks late
  • If a birth control skin patch comes off or is not used on schedule
  • If a birth control vaginal ring comes out or isn't used on schedule
  • If an IUD comes out

Sperm are resilient; they can survive up to five days in a woman's body, so it's important to act fast if you want to avoid becoming pregnant. Emergency contraception must be used within at least five days of unprotected sex, and some forms are only effective if you use them within three days. They tend to lose effectiveness the longer you wait.

Because timing is crucial, some health care professionals recommend buying ECPs in advance and having them on hand, especially if you want to use a brand that requires a prescription.

How does emergency contraception work?

Most ECPs contain a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone called levonorgestrel, including Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, My Way and generic levonorgestrel tablets. The other type of ECP is called ella and contains a chemical named ulipristal acetate.

Both pills can prevent your ovaries from releasing an egg, stop an egg from being fertilized or prevent a fertilized egg from implanting on the wall of your uterus.

One other option is an IUD (intrauterine device). It won’t stop an egg from being released but could prevent fertilization or implantation.

If you’re already pregnant, these methods won’t work for terminating the pregnancy.

How effective are emergency contraceptives?

Some estimates say that the ECPs can reduce your chance of pregnancy by up to 90 percent when they’re used as directed. The ultimate effectiveness will depend on how soon you take the pill and where you are in your monthly cycle.

The copper IUD is more effective than ECPs, reducing pregnancy risk by more than 99 percent, but it is not always the right choice for all women.

Where can you get emergency contraception?

You can get emergency contraception from a number of places, including health clinics, private doctors, Planned Parenthood, some hospital emergency rooms, pharmacies and, now, on the shelves of major health retailers.

For now, the only emergency contraception pill available over the counter is Plan B One-Step. Other brands of hormonal ECPs, such as My Way, Next Choice One Dose and generic levonorgestrel tablets, also should soon be available on the shelf, but only to women 17 and older, who will likely be required to show an ID. These pills currently must be requested at the pharmacy counter. Girls under 17 and all males still need a prescription for these other hormonal ECPs. The one non-hormonal option, ella, requires a prescription.

IUDs are not as easy to use as ECPs. They involve going to a health care provider to have the device inserted into your uterus.

How much do emergency contraceptives cost?

The pills cost anywhere from $35 to $50.

A copper IUD can cost $175 to $650 because it involves seeing your health care provider for a procedure. Protection can last up to 12 years, but it’s not a cost-effective method for short-term .

Are there side effects?

There are some side effects associated with emergency contraception pills, like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, breast tenderness and changes to the menstrual cycle, such as earlier periods. If you're taking emergency contraception, you may want to ask your health care provider for an anti-nausea medicine to take beforehand, because this is the most common side effect.

If you're discussing ECPs with your teenagers, be sure to mention the side effects and remind them that EPCs are meant solely for emergencies, not for everyday contraception.

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