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Department of Reproductive Health and Research (RHR), World Health Organization

Managing Complications in Pregnancy and Childbirth

A guide for midwives and doctors 


Section 2 - Symptoms

Vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy


  • Vaginal bleeding occurs during the first 22 weeks of pregnancy.


  • Make a rapid evaluation of the general condition of the woman including vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, respiration, temperature).

  • If shock is suspected, immediately begin treatment. Even if signs of shock are not present, keep shock in mind as you evaluate the woman further because her status may worsen rapidly. If shock develops, it is important to begin treatment immediately. 

  • If the woman is in shock, consider ruptured ectopic pregnancy (Table S-4).

  • Start an IV infusion and infuse IV fluids.


  • Consider ectopic pregnancy in any woman with anaemia, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), threatened abortion or unusual complaints about abdominal pain.

Note: If ectopic pregnancy is suspected, perform bimanual examination gently because an early ectopic pregnancy is easily ruptured.

  • Consider abortion in any woman of reproductive age who has a missed period (delayed menstrual bleeding with more than a month having passed since her last menstrual period) and has one or more of the following: bleeding, cramping, partial expulsion of products of conception, dilated cervix or smaller uterus than expected.

  • If abortion is a possible diagnosis, identify and treat any complications immediately (Table S-2).


Diagnosis of vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy 

Presenting Symptom and Other Symptoms and Signs Typically

Symptoms and Signs Sometimes Present

Probable Diagnosis

• Lighta bleeding

• Closed cervix

• Uterus corresponds to dates

• Cramping/lower abdominal pain

• Uterus softer than normal

Threatened abortion

• Light bleeding

• Abdominal pain

• Closed cervix

• Uterus slightly larger than normal

• Uterus softer than normal

• Fainting

• Tender adnexal mass

• Amenorrhoea

• Cervical motion tenderness

Ectopic pregnancy

• Light bleeding

• Closed cervix

• Uterus smaller than dates

• Uterus softer than normal

• Light cramping/lower abdominal pain

• History of expulsion of products of conception

Complete abortion

• Heavyb bleeding

• Dilated cervix

• Uterus corresponds to dates

• Cramping/lower abdominal pain
• Tender uterus

• No expulsion of products of conception

Inevitable abortion

• Heavy bleeding

• Dilated cervix

• Uterus smaller than dates

• Cramping/lower abdominal pain
• Partial expulsion of products of conception

Incomplete abortion

• Heavy bleeding

• Dilated cervix

• Uterus larger than dates

• Uterus softer than normal

• Partial expulsion of products of conception which resemble grapes

• Nausea/vomiting

• Spontaneous abortion

• Cramping/lower abdominal pain

• Ovarian cysts (easily ruptured)

• Early onset pre-eclampsia

• No evidence of a fetus

Molar pregnancy

a Light bleeding: takes longer than 5 minutes for a clean pad or cloth to be soaked.

b Heavy bleeding: takes less than 5 minutes for a clean pad or cloth to be soaked.



Diagnosis and management of complications of abortion 

 Symptoms and Signs 



• Lower abdominal pain

• Rebound tenderness

• Tender uterus

• Prolonged bleeding

• Malaise

• Fever

• Foul-smelling vaginal discharge

• Purulent cervical discharge

• Cervical motion tenderness


Begin antibioticsa as soon as possible before attempting manual vacuum aspiration .

• Cramping/abdominal pain

• Rebound tenderness

• Abdominal distension

• Rigid (tense and hard) abdomen

• Shoulder pain

• Nausea/vomiting

• Fever

Uterine, vaginal or bowel injuries

Perform a laparotomy to repair the injury and perform manual vacuum aspiration simultaneously. Seek further assistance if required.

a Give ampicillin 2 g IV every 6 hours PLUS gentamicin 5 mg/kg body weight IV every 24 hours PLUS metronidazole 500 mg IV every 8 hours until the woman is fever-free for 48 hours.


BOX S-1 Types of abortion 

Spontaneous abortion is defined as the loss of a pregnancy before fetal viability (22 weeks gestation). The stages of spontaneous abortion may include:

  • threatened abortion (pregnancy may continue);

  • inevitable abortion (pregnancy will not continue and will proceed to incomplete/complete abortion);

  • incomplete abortion (products of conception are partially expelled);

  • complete abortion (products of conception are completely expelled). 

Induced abortion is defined as a process by which pregnancy is terminated before fetal viability.

Unsafe abortion is defined as a procedure performed either by persons lacking necessary skills or in an environment lacking minimal medical standards or both. 

Septic abortion is defined as abortion complicated by infection. Sepsis may result from infection if organisms rise from the lower genital tract following either spontaneous or unsafe abortion. Sepsis is more likely to occur if there are retained products of conception and evacuation has been delayed. Sepsis is a frequent complication of unsafe abortion involving instrumentation. 



If unsafe abortion is suspected, examine for signs of infection or uterine, vaginal or bowel injury (Table S-2, page S-9) and thoroughly irrigate the vagina to remove any herbs, local medications or caustic substances. 



  • Medical treatment is usually not necessary. 

  • Advise the woman to avoid strenuous activity and sexual intercourse but bed rest is not necessary.

  • If bleeding stops, follow up in antenatal clinic. Reassess if bleeding recurs.

  • If bleeding persists, assess for fetal viability (pregnancy test/ultrasound) or ectopic pregnancy (ultrasound). Persistent bleeding, particularly in the presence of a uterus larger than expected, may indicate twins or molar pregnancy. 

Do not give medications such as hormones (e.g. oestrogens or progestins) or tocolytic agents (e.g. salbutamol or indomethacin) as they will not prevent miscarriage. 



- Give ergometrine 0.2 mg IM (repeated after 15 minutes if necessary) OR misoprostol 400 mcg by mouth (repeated once after 4 hours if necessary);

- Arrange for evacuation of uterus as soon as possible.

  • If pregnancy is greater than 16 weeks:

- Await spontaneous expulsion of products of conception and then evacuate the uterus to remove any remaining products of conception;

- If necessary, infuse oxytocin 40 units in 1 L IV fluids (normal saline or Ringer’s lactate) at 40 drops per minute to help achieve expulsion of products of conception.



  • If bleeding is light to moderate and pregnancy is less than 16 weeks, use fingers or ring (or sponge) forceps to remove products of conception protruding through the cervix.

  • If bleeding is heavy and pregnancy is less than 16 weeks, evacuate the uterus:

- Manual vacuum aspiration is the preferred method of evacuation. Evacuation by sharp curettage should only be done if manual vacuum aspiration is not available;

- If evacuation is not immediately possible, give ergometrine 0.2 mg IM (repeated after 15 minutes if necessary) OR misoprostol 400 mcg orally (repeated once after 4 hours if

  • If pregnancy is greater than 16 weeks:

- Infuse oxytocin 40 units in 1 L IV fluids (normal saline or Ringer’s lactate) at 40 drops per minute until expulsion of products of conception occurs;

- If necessary, give misoprostol 200 mcg vaginally every 4 hours until expulsion, but do not administer more than 800 mcg;

- Evacuate any remaining products of conception from the uterus.

  • Ensure follow-up of the woman after treatment (see below).


  • Evacuation of the uterus is usually not necessary.

  • Observe for heavy bleeding.

  • Ensure follow-up of the woman after treatment (see below).


Before discharge, tell a woman who has had a spontaneous abortion that spontaneous abortion is common and occurs in at least 15% (one in every seven) of clinically recognized pregnancies. Also reassure the woman that the chances for a subsequent successful pregnancy are good unless there has been sepsis or a cause of the abortion is identified that may have an adverse effect on future pregnancies (this is rare). 

Some women may want to become pregnant soon after having an incomplete abortion. The woman should be encouraged to delay the next pregnancy until she is completely recovered.

It is important to counsel women who have had an unsafe abortion. If pregnancy is not desired, certain methods of family planning (Table S-3) can be started immediately (within 7 days) provided:

  • There are no severe complications requiring further treatment;

  • The woman receives adequate counselling and help in selecting the most appropriate family planning method.


Family planning methods 

Type of Contraceptive

Advise to Start

Hormonal (pills, injections, implants)

• Immediately


• Immediately

Intrauterine device (IUD)

• Immediately

• If infection is present or suspected, delay insertion until it is cleared

• If Hb is less than 7 g/dL, delay until anaemia improves 

• Provide an interim method (e.g. condom)

Voluntary tubal ligation

• Immediately

• If infection is present or suspected, delay surgery until it is cleared

• If Hb is less than 7 g/dL, delay until anaemia improves 

• Provide an interim method (e.g. condom)


Also identify any other reproductive health services that a woman may need. For example some women may need:

  • tetanus prophylaxis or tetanus booster;

  • treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs);

  • cervical cancer screening.


An ectopic pregnancy is one in which implantation occurs outside the uterine cavity. The fallopian tube is the most common site of ectopic implantation (greater than 90%).

Symptoms and signs are extremely variable depending on whether or not the pregnancy has ruptured (Table S-4). Culdocentesis (cul-de-sac puncture) is an important tool for the diagnosis of ruptured ectopic pregnancy, but is less useful than a serum pregnancy test combined with ultrasonography. If non-clotting blood is obtained, begin immediate management. 



 Symptoms and signs of ruptured and unruptured ectopic pregnancy 

Unruptured Ectopic Pregnancy

Ruptured Ectopic Pregnancy

• Symptoms of early pregnancy (irregular spotting or bleeding, nausea, swelling of breasts, bluish

discoloration of vagina and cervix, softening of cervix, slight uterine enlargement, increased urinary frequency)

• Abdominal and pelvic pain

• Collapse and weakness

• Fast, weak pulse (110 per minute or more)

• Hypotension

• Hypovolaemia

• Acute abdominal and pelvic pain

• Abdominal distensiona

• Rebound tenderness

• Pallor

a Distended abdomen with shifting dullness may indicate free blood.



The most common differential diagnosis for ectopic pregnancy is threatened abortion. Others are acute or chronic PID, ovarian cysts (torsion or rupture) and acute appendicitis.
If available, ultrasound may help distinguish a threatened abortion or twisted ovarian cyst from an ectopic pregnancy.



  • Cross-match blood and arrange for immediate laparotomy. Do not wait for blood before performing surgery.

  • At surgery, inspect both ovaries and fallopian tubes:

- If there is extensive damage to the tubes, perform salpingectomy (the bleeding tube and the products of conception are excised together). This is the treatment of choice in most cases

- Rarely, if there is little tubal damage, perform salpingostomy (the products of conception can be removed and the tube conserved). This should be done only when the conservation of fertility is very important to the woman, as the risk of another ectopic pregnancy is high.


If significant haemorrhage occurs, autotransfusion can be used if the blood is unquestionably fresh and free from infection (in later stages of pregnancy, blood is contaminated with amniotic fluid, etc. and should not be used for autotransfusion). The blood can be collected prior to surgery or after the abdomen is opened:

  • When the woman is on the operating table prior to surgery and the abdomen is distended with blood, it is sometimes possible to insert a needle through the abdominal wall and
    collect the blood in a donor set. 

  • Alternatively, open the abdomen:

- Scoop the blood into a basin and strain through gauze to remove clots; 

- Clean the top portion of a blood donor bag with antiseptic solution and open it with a sterile blade; 

- Pour the woman’s blood into the bag and reinfuse it through a filtered set in the usual way;

- If a donor bag with anticoagulant is not available, add sodium citrate 10 mL to each 90 mL of blood.


  • Prior to discharge, provide counselling and advice on prognosis for fertility. Given the increased risk of future ectopic pregnancy, family planning counselling and provision of a family planning method, if desired, is especially important (Table S-3).

  • Correct anaemia with ferrous sulfate or ferrous fumerate 60 mg by mouth daily for 6 months.

  • Schedule a follow-up visit at 4 weeks. 


Molar pregnancy is characterized by an abnormal proliferation of chorionic villi.



  • If the diagnosis of molar pregnancy is certain, evacuate the uterus:

- If cervical dilatation is needed, use a paracervical block;

- Use vacuum aspiration. Manual vacuum aspiration is safer and associated with less blood loss. The risk of perforation using a metal curette is high;

- Have three syringes cocked and ready for use during the evacuation. The uterine contents are copious and it is important to evacuate them rapidly.

  • Infuse oxytocin 20 units in 1 L IV fluids (normal saline or Ringer’s lactate) at 60 drops per minute to prevent haemorrhage once evacuation is under way.


  • Recommend a hormonal family planning method for at least 1 year to prevent pregnancy (Table S-3). Voluntary tubal ligation may be offered if the woman has
    completed her family.

  • Follow up every 8 weeks for at least 1 year with urine pregnancy tests because of the risk of persistent trophoblastic disease or choriocarcinoma. If the urine pregnancy test is not negative after 8 weeks or becomes positive again within the first year, refer the woman to a tertiary care centre for further follow-up and management.

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Clinical principles

Rapid initial assessment

Talking with women and their families

Emotional and psychological support


General care principles

Clinical use of blood, blood products and replacement fluids

Antibiotic therapy

Anaesthesia and analgesia

Operative care principles

Normal Labour and childbirth

Newborn care principles

Provider and community linkages



Vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy

Vaginal bleeding in later pregnancy and labour

Vaginal bleeding after childbirth

Headache, blurred vision, convulsions or loss of consciousness, elevated blood pressure

Unsatisfactory progress of Labour

Malpositions and malpresentations

Shoulder dystocia

Labour with an overdistended uterus

Labour with a scarred uterus

Fetal distress in Labour

Prolapsed cord

Fever during pregnancy and labour

Fever after childbirth

Abdominal pain in early pregnancy

Abdominal pain in later pregnancy and after childbirth

Difficulty in breathing

Loss of fetal movements

Prelabour rupture of membranes

Immediate newborn conditions or problems


Paracervical block

Pudendal block

Local anaesthesia for caesaran section

Spinal (subarachnoid) anaesthesia


External version

Induction and augmentation of labour

Vacuum extraction

Forceps delivery

Caesarean section


Craniotomy and craniocentesis

Dilatation and curettage

Manual vacuum aspiration

Culdocentesis and colpotomy


Manual removal of placenta

Repair of cervical tears

Repair of vaginal and perinetal tears

Correcting uterine inversion

Repair of ruptured uterus

Uterine and utero-ovarian artery ligation

Postpartum hysterectomy

Salpingectomy for ectopic pregnancuy



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