Emergency contraception ... and our duty to inform


In 2013, the emergency contraception containing levonorgestrel, most commonly known as Plan B, became available for purchase without prescription or age restriction. Yet, 5 years later, many adolescents and teens remain misinformed or uninformed completely. For the scope of this article, only levonorgestrel will be discussed, acknowledging that ulipristal acetate (Ella) is also an emergency contraception by prescription.

As providers we all recognize the challenges of engaging a teen patient long enough to have a meaningful conversation on health and wellness. There are even greater challenges when it comes to discussing sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases. So the thought of discussing prevention of unwanted pregnancy may be daunting for most of us.

A girl waits to be seen by a doctor

This topic has many layers. First and foremost, it touches on a hotly debated topic of where life begins, and emergency contraception may be thought to cross that line. Awareness of the option of emergency contraception is thought to give a free pass to promiscuous behavior. Some just feel there is not enough research to support the safe use of these products in adolescents. As with most things, taking the time to educate ourselves on the facts usually alleviates the conflicts.

Understanding levonorgestrel mechanism of action is important in clarifying its position in the prolife debate. The International Consortium for Emergency Contraception and the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetrics consider that inhibition or delay of ovulation is levonorgestrel’s mechanism of action, and that it does not prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. If taken after ovulation has occurred, it is ineffective in preventing pregnancy.1,2

Levonorgestrel emergency contraception was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999 under the brand name Plan B by Teva Women’s Health, then later Next Choice (Watson Pharma) was released. Initially, it was prescribed to be taken as a 0.75-mg tab within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse and repeated in 12 hours. Further studies revealed taking a 1.5-mg tab once was just as effective with no significant increase in adverse effects and Plan B One-Step was released.3

The Catholic Health Association presented a paper clarifying that levonorgestrel is not a postfertilization contraceptive (abortifacient), hopefully preventing delay of its use in victims of sexual assault seen in Catholic health care facilities.4

Safety for this product since its release has shown no deaths or serious complications.2 The most common side effect is nausea, usually without vomiting.2 Antinausea medication given 1 hour before can be helpful but is not routinely used. The length of menstrual cycle is shorter if given early in cycle but it may be lengthened by 2 days if taken post ovulation. It is not intended for repeated use, but 11 studies showed no adverse effects when it was used repeatedly in the same ovulatory cycle, and it was shown to be safe.2


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