Light bleeding or "spotting" during pregnancy happens more often than you might think, with up to 25 percent of all pregnant women experiencing it. Spotting -- bleeding that isn't continuous and isn't enough to fill a tampon or pad -- is especially common in the first three months. In many cases there's no cause for alarm, but you should call your doctor whenever you have bleeding during pregnancy -- even if it has stopped by the time you notice signs of it. You'll probably need to go in for an exam to rule out any complications, and to make sure you and your baby are fine.
What causes spotting?
At the very beginning of your pregnancy, spotting can result when the fertilized egg attaches itself to the lining of the uterus. This type of bleeding -- which generally occurs around six to 12 days after conception -- is usually light and only lasts a day or two.
Other causes of spotting include a vaginal infection or a benign growth in the cervix (polyp). Some women also bleed when their cervix is irritated or inflamed, which can happen after having a Pap smear or intercourse. For this reason, your health practitioner will probably ask you some questions, such as whether increased physical activity makes the bleeding worse, or whether you notice it during or after intercourse. In addition, certain drugs can prolong bleeding, so be sure to mention any medications you are taking to your doctor.
Of course, bleeding may also be a warning sign of a miscarriage, especially during the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy. Spotting can also be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy, especially if you have cramping and abdominal pain at the same time. (An ectopic pregnancy, which is a medical emergency, results when the egg implants inside the fallopian tube rather than the uterus.)
Later in your pregnancy, bleeding or spotting can signal a condition called placenta previa, which occurs when the placenta implants in the lower part of the uterus and obstructs the cervical opening to the birth canal. It can also indicate that the placenta has prematurely separated from the uterus (placenta abruptio). Both of these conditions can be dangerous to your baby, so your practitioner will need to examine you right away.
Toward the end of your pregnancy, a little spotting may mean that labor is beginning. Doctors call this "bloody show," and it can happen when the mucus plug is being dislodged from your cervix. However, if this happens too early, it can signal premature labor.
There's rarely any cause for alarm if the bleeding happens after 37 weeks. In most cases, the spotting means your cervix is beginning to soften or dilate in preparation for birth. But you should call your doctor just the same because even after 37 weeks, more than just a little spotting can signal that the placenta has separated from the uterus.
While these warnings may sound unsettling, most cases of light bleeding stop with no additional problems. However, call your doctor immediately if you have any vaginal bleeding during pregnancy, so you can put your concerns to rest.
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American Pregnancy Association. Bleeding During Pregnancy. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancycomplications/ bleedingduringpreg.html
American Pregnancy Association. Most FAQ About Pregnancy: Early Pregnancy. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/preventingpregnancy/ mostfaqaboutpregnancy.htm
American Pregnancy Association. Pregnancy Symptoms: Early Signs of Pregnancy. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/gettingpregnant/ earlypregnancysymptoms.html
Engender Health. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. http://www.engenderhealth.org/wh/inf/dpid.html#risk
University of Michigan Health System. Bleeding During Pregnancy http://www.med.umich.edu/obgyn/smartmoms/ pregnancy/health/bleeding.htm