Did My Birth Control Fail? Could I Be Pregnant?

Wondering Am I Pregnant?

Did My Birth Control Fail?. Yuri Arcurs/Collection: E+/Getty Images

Remember: If you have had unprotected sex or know that your birth control failed (within the last 5 days), know that emergency contraception may still be able to prevent an unintended pregnancy.

How the Female Reproductive System Works

If it has been more than 5 days since you believe your birth control may have failed (to better figure out if you may be facing an unplanned pregnancy), it may be helpful to understand about the female reproductive system and when pregnancy actually begins.

In most females, about once a month, several eggs mature, and one is released from the ovary (known as ovulation). Up until this time, the lining of the uterus has become thick so it can act as a “nest” for the egg. Once the egg is released, if it is not fertilized within 12 to 48 hours, it disintegrates.

Approximately 2 weeks later, the thick lining of the uterus is shed; this is what causes a period. The cycle then begins again.

Ovulation typically occurs around 14 or 15 days from the first day of the female's last menstrual cycle. It is important to note, though, that there could be great variation in ovulation times. Factors such as stress and diet can all affect ovulation times.

Timing ovulation can be tricky since may not always happen at the same time each month. In general, research has shown that women who consistently have periods every 26 to 32 days, conception is most likely to occur during days 8 to 19.

When counting the days of a menstrual cycle, a woman should count the day that her period starts as Day 1. Once ovulation takes place, the egg travels into the fallopian tube and is receptive to fertilization by a sperm.

When a female is ovulating, it is her most fertile time to become pregnant. If a female has intercourse around the time that she is ovulating, she is more likely to get pregnant.

So, if a couple has unprotected intercourse, they should be most “careful” during the 5 days leading up to ovulation and the 1 day after it. This is because sperm can live inside the female body for up to 5 days. So even if a woman does not ovulate for another 4 days after having sex, sperm could still be living inside her that can fertilize the egg when it is released.

  • If you believe that your birth control may have failed around this time frame, you could be at greater risk for an unplanned pregnancy.

Medical authorities concur that pregnancy begins with implantation; this is when the fertilized egg implants into the wall of the uterus. This actually occurs several days after the sperm fertilizes the egg. The human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) hormone is required to sustain a pregnancy. hCG is only produced once a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. In most women, this happens about 6 days after conception. The hCG levels increase significantly with each passing day. Pregnancy tests measure whether or not hCG is present.

Because it can take a minimum of 6 days after conception for the body to produce hCG, taking a pregnancy test too early can generate a false negative result (meaning, you are, indeed pregnant, it was just too early for the test to detect the hormone). Studies indicate that most pregnancy tests will provide accurate results if a woman takes the test one week after a missed period.

"Am I Pregnant"

Thinking that you may be pregnant and do not want to be can be stressful, especially if you do not know if you are facing an unintended pregnancy. To add to the confusion, many early pregnancy signs can also be due to other reasons. However, in general, the most common cause of a missed period is pregnancy. It is also important to note that many women who are pregnant may have spotting or staining right around the time they are expecting a period.

Hormones can complicate the issue further. When your period is just late (meaning not due to pregnancy), a woman’s body may be affected by premenstrual anxiety (anxiety, associated with PMS, that occurs before a woman has her period). Also, if you begin to stress about a missing period, you're preventing menstruation from happening. On the flip side, if you are pregnant, hormones associated with pregnancy can make you feel obsessed.

To help you determine if your period is considered “late,” according to Dr. Kathleen Mammel, director of Adolescent Pediatrics at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan:

  • “A menstrual cycle is the period of time from day one of your menstrual period to day one of your next period. Menstrual cycles vary in length from one woman to the next. They may occur at the same time each month or be irregular. Typically, a cycle occurs about once a month, but can be as short as 21 days or as long as 35 days and still be considered normal. Menstrual flow lasts about 3 to 7 days. A menstrual period is considered late if it is 5 or more days overdue according to your usual pattern of periods. A period is considered missed if there is no menstrual flow for 6 or more weeks.”

Before you begin to explore the notion that your birth control may have failed, it is a good idea to first confirm whether or not you are pregnant. The best and most reliable way to determine if your birth control failed and a pregnancy has occurred is to take a pregnancy test.

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