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11 percent of women say they've used the morning-after pill: CDC

NorLevo is an emergency contraceptive pill that's available overseas.
NorLevo is an emergency contraceptive pill that's available overseas.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Emergency contraception use is on the rise, federal health officials reported on Thursday, with nearly 6 million U.S. women reporting they'd used it at least once in their lives.

That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which said in a data brief that, between 2006 and 2010, 11 percent of women said they'd used emergency contraceptive pills – up from 4.2 percent in 2002 and less than 1 percent in 1995.

There are at least four brands of emergency contraceptive pills, said the CDC, with Plan B being one of the most recognized names. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines emergency contraceptive pills as a method "that can be used to prevent pregnancy in the first few days after intercourse" – one that's "intended for emergency use following unprotected intercourse, contraceptive failure or misuse (such as forgotten pills or torn condoms), rape or coerced sex."

Hence its nickname: The morning-after pill.

The levonorgestrel variety – which includes Plan B – prevents pregnancy by delaying ovulation or preventing it outright. It can also prevent sperms' fertilization of an egg by changing the properties of cervical mucus or the ability of sperm to bind itself to the egg. The WHO adds that emergency contraceptive pills "are very safe and do not cause abortion or harm future fertility."

Reneé Mestanza, a women's health care nurse practitioner at St. John's Well Child and Family Center's Compton Health Center, agrees, but says frequent use could cause a women's menstrual cycle to become irregular.

"I'd rather have you come in here, sit here and talk about what a good birth control method for you is than have you taking the morning-after pill on a regular basis," she said. But Mestanza added she'd "definitely let [her patients] know" that emergency contraception was an option.

It's also not cheap. Planned Parenthood says it can run up to $70 a dose, depending on the situation, and Mestanza noted that it can be tough to get some health plans to cover the cost.

The CDC report highlighted several trends about emergency contraceptive use in the U.S.:

Emergency contraception is one important tool for health providers and professionals looking to reduce the unintended birth rate. In 2012, the CDC reported more than one in three births – almost 40 percent – were either "unwanted" or "mistimed." South L.A., for its part, had the highest teen birth rate in the county in 2009: nearly 74 for every 1,000 live births.

Mestanza said unintended pregnancy in the area is "still high, especially with teen pregnancy." But she's unsure why, since subsidized family planning is available.

"I don't know if patients just are not proactive [enough] to do anything ahead of time, you know what I mean?" she said. "They all come in after the fact."

She estimates that 10 to 15 percent of her patients have used emergency contraception at least once in their lives.