What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy that happens outside of the uterus. This happens when a fertilized egg implants in a structure that can’t support its growth. An ectopic pregnancy often happens in the fallopian tube (a pair of structures that connect the ovaries and uterus). In rare cases, an ectopic pregnancy can occur on an ovary or in the abdominal cavity.

This is a life-threatening condition. An ectopic pregnancy is not a pregnancy that can be carried to term (till birth) and can be dangerous for the mother if not treated right away.

Where does an ectopic pregnancy happen?

It’s considered an ectopic pregnancy whenever the fertilized egg implants outside of your uterus. The egg is meant to travel down the fallopian tubes and imbed itself into the wall of your uterus, where it can begin to develop. In an ectopic pregnancy, the egg implants in one of the structures along the way. The most common place this can happen is within the fallopian tubes. The majority of ectopic pregnancies happen here—called a tubal ectopic pregnancy. A fertilized egg can also implant on other organs in your abdominal cavity. This is a rarer form of ectopic pregnancy than one that happens in a fallopian tube.

How serious is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is a medical emergency. The uterus is uniquely suited to hold a growing fetus. It’s an organ that can stretch and expand as the fetus grows. Your fallopian tubes aren’t as flexible. They can burst as the fertilized egg develops. When this happens, you can experience large amounts of internal bleeding. This is life threatening. An ectopic pregnancy needs to be treated right away to avoid injury to the fallopian tube, other organs in the abdominal cavity, internal bleeding and death.

Can my pregnancy continue after an ectopic pregnancy?

Unfortunately, an ectopic pregnancy is fatal for the fetus. It cannot survive outside of the uterus. Quick treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is important to protect the mother’s life. If the egg has implanted in the fallopian tube and the tube bursts, there can be severe internal bleeding. This can lead to maternal death.

What causes an ectopic pregnancy?

In most cases, an ectopic pregnancy is caused by conditions that slow down or block the movement of the egg down the fallopian tube and into the uterus.

How do I know if I’m at risk of an ectopic pregnancy?

There are several risk factors that could increase your chance of developing an ectopic pregnancy. A risk factor is a trait or behavior that increases your chance for developing a disease or condition. You may be at a higher risk of developing an ectopic pregnancy if you’ve had:

  • A previous ectopic pregnancy.
  • A history of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection that can cause scar tissue to form in your fallopian tubes, uterus, ovaries and cervix.
  • Surgery on your fallopian tubes (including tubal ligation, also referred to as having your tubes tied) or on the other organs of your pelvic area.
  • A history of infertility.
  • Treatment for infertility with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
  • Endometriosis.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • An intrauterine device (IUD), a form of birth control, in place at the time of conception.
  • A history of smoking.

Your risk can also increase as you get older. Women over age 35 are more at risk than younger women.

Many women who experience an ectopic pregnancy don’t have any of the above risk factors.

What are the symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy?

The early symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy can be very similar to typical pregnancy symptoms. However, you may experience additional symptoms during an ectopic pregnancy, including:

  • Vaginal bleeding.
  • Pain in your lower abdomen, pelvis and lower back.
  • Dizziness or weakness.

If the fallopian tube ruptures, the pain and bleeding could be severe enough to cause additional symptoms. These can include:

When a tube bursts, you may feel sharp lower abdominal pain. This is a medical emergency and you will need to contact your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room immediately.

If you realize that you are pregnant and have an IUD (intrauterine device for contraception) in place, or have a history of a tubal ligation (having your tubes tied by surgery or at the time of a C-section), contact your healthcare provider right away. Ectopic pregnancy is more common in these situations.

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