Issues surrounding women’s health, particularly those related to sex and birth control, are considered taboo in many Asian cultures. Growing up, these kinds of conversations certainly did not exist in my Asian household. School was not much help either. A traumatizing childbirth video in health class and a yearly lecture on abstinence – that pretty much sums up my sex education. Like many young Asian American women, this left me feeling completely clueless and powerless as I navigated the early years of womanhood. 

Now, as a practicing emergency physician, I see patients who suffer from the consequences of having little or ill-informed sex education all the time, particularly young women in regards to birth control and contraception. While a discussion can always be made for ways to improve education at the school level, I believe it is more important to normalize these conversations in the home and among peers. I hope that by generating more open discussion in the Asian community, we can work together to reduce the cultural stigma around these topics and empower more Asian American women to learn about their bodies, practice safe sex, and seek help when needed. One area that I am particularly passionate about, and believe every woman should be familiar with, is emergency contraception. 

What is emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception (EC) is a form of birth control used to reduce the chances of pregnancy after unprotected sex or inadequately protected sex, such as condom breakage or missing a dose of birth control medication. There are 2 main forms of EC: pills and the copper intrauterine device (IUD). The pills contain hormones that stop or delay ovulation in order to prevent pregnancy. There are 3 types: progestin-only, ulipristal, and combined estrogen-progesterone pills. While no form of EC is perfect at preventing pregnancy 100% of the time, studies have shown that the copper IUD and the ulipristal pill are the most effective forms


Type

Common Brand Names
Number of DosesTiming After IntercourseAvailable Over the Counter?
Progestin-onlyPlan B One-Step®, My Choice®, My Way®1 pill3 daysYes 
Ulipristalella®1 pill5 daysNo
Combined estrogen-progesteroneAmethyst®, Low-Ogestrel®, and many moreMultiple pills5 daysNo
Copper IUDParaguard®1 insertion, good for up to 10 years5 daysNo
  1. The progestin-only pill is a single pill that is most effective when taken up to 3 days after intercourse. This medication is popular because it is widely available over the counter with no age restrictions. Cost depends on which brand and pharmacy you buy from, but generally ranges from $15-$50. 
  1. The ulipristal pill is also a single pill, most effective when taken up to 5 days after intercourse. This medication requires a prescription and costs around $40-$50. Of the three types of pills, ulipristal has been shown to be the most effective at preventing pregnancy.
  1. Combined estrogen-progesterone pills are another option but can be complicated to understand. Because they are not sold in a dedicated formula for the purposes of emergency contraception, this method often involves taking multiple pills over 2 or more doses. This requires a prescription and is generally known to be the least effective method of emergency contraception. Cost can vary depending on the brand. 
  1. The copper IUD prevents pregnancy by creating an inhospitable environment for sperm and eggs. It does not contain hormones and is most effective when inserted up to 5 days after intercourse. If left in, it can also provide long-term birth control for up to 10 years and can be taken out at any time. The copper IUD must be inserted by a trained provider, such as an OB/GYN. Fortunately, the device itself is covered by most health insurance plans. 

Is emergency contraception the same thing as a medical abortion?

No. The purpose of using emergency contraception is to reduce the chances of getting pregnant before a pregnancy is established. On the other hand, a medical abortion is done to terminate an already existing pregnancy.

Does emergency contraception protect me from sexually transmitted diseases? 

No. Emergency contraception only prevents pregnancy. Sexually transmitted diseases are only prevented by using barrier protection, such as condoms and dental dams.

Is it safe to use emergency contraception repeatedly? 

It depends. Research has shown that it is safe to use EC more than once in a menstrual cycle. However, there is not enough information known regarding the safety of using EC frequently over long periods of time. Therefore, it is recommended for all sexually active women who are not desiring pregnancy to have a long-term birth control plan in place, such as an IUD or oral contraceptives.   

Suggested Reading and Resources

  • GoodRx® is an extremely helpful resource that is free to use and lists medication prices at various pharmacies. They also offer free coupons for many medications and have a mobile app. 

Disclaimer: This story reflects the author’s personal opinions and does not represent the views or policies of the author’s employer, past or present, or any organization the author may be affiliated with. Statements on this writing piece are intended for the purpose of general knowledge and are not meant to substitute for personal medical advice provided by a physician or other healthcare professional. Readers should always consult their own physician or other healthcare professional for medical advice. The author has no financial relationships with any of the organizations and companies mentioned in the story.  

Illustration credit: Joy Velasco

Author

  • Catherine Yu is an emergency medicine resident physician currently practicing in the greater NYC area. Her interests within the medical field include women’s health, education, and physician burnout. When she’s not at the hospital, you can find her catching up with friends, binge-watching TV shows and Asian dramas, eating noodles, or planning her next great adventure.