Abnormal vaginal bleeding includes any vaginal bleeding that occurs
Between menstrual periods
After menopause (12 months or more after the last menstrual period)
During the childbearing years, vaginal bleeding occurs normally as menstrual periods. However, menstrual periods are considered abnormal if they
Become excessively heavy (saturating more than 1 or 2 tampons an hour)
Last too long (more than 7 days)
Occur too frequently (usually fewer than 21 days apart)
Occur too infrequently (usually more than 90 days apart)
Typically, menstrual periods last from 3 to 7 days and occur every 21 to 35 days. In adolescents, the interval between periods varies more and may be as long as 45 days.
Vaginal bleeding may occur during early pregnancy Vaginal Bleeding During Early Pregnancy During the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, 20 to 30% of women have vaginal bleeding. For many of these women, there is a problem with the pregnancy, but some women have light bleeding or spotting... read more or during late pregnancy Vaginal Bleeding During Late Pregnancy During late pregnancy (after 20 weeks), 3 to 4% of women have vaginal bleeding. Bleeding may be a signal that there is a risk of losing the baby or of bleeding excessively (hemorrhaging). In... read more and may result from problems (complications) related to the pregnancy.
Prolonged or excessive bleeding, regardless of cause, can result in iron deficiency Iron Deficiency Iron deficiency is a common cause of anemia, a condition in which the number of red blood cells is low. Iron deficiency usually results from loss of blood in adults (including bleeding from... read more , anemia Overview of Anemia Anemia is a condition in which the number of red blood cells is low. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that enables them to carry oxygen from the lungs and deliver it to all parts... read more , and sometimes dangerously low blood pressure (shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the organs is low, decreasing delivery of oxygen and thus causing organ damage and sometimes death. Blood pressure is usually low... read more ).
Causes of Vaginal Bleeding
Vaginal bleeding may result from
A disorder of the vagina, uterus, cervix, or another reproductive organ, such as fibroids, infection, or cancer
Disorders that cause excessive bleeding (uncommon)
Likely causes of vaginal bleeding depend on the woman’s age.
Newborn girls may have a small amount of vaginal bleeding. Before birth, they absorb estrogen through the placenta from the mother. After birth, these high levels of estrogen decrease rapidly, sometimes causing a little bleeding during the first 1 to 2 weeks of life.
During childhood, vaginal bleeding is abnormal and uncommon. When it occurs, it is most often caused by
A foreign object (body), such as toilet paper or a toy, in the vagina
An injury, or possible sexual abuse
Infections in the vagina Overview of Vaginitis (Vaginal Infection or Inflammation) Vaginal infections are one of the most common reasons women see their doctor, accounting for millions of visits each year. Vaginal infections are caused by infectious organisms (such as bacteria... read more (vaginitis)
During the childbearing years, the most common cause is
Hormonal imbalance that causes ovulation to be delayed or not happen (ovulatory dysfunction), which can cause abnormal uterine bleeding Abnormal Uterine Bleeding (AUB) Abnormal uterine bleeding in women of childbearing age is bleeding from the uterus that does not follow the normal pattern for menstrual cycles. That is, it occurs too frequently or irregularly... read more
Uterine bleeding due to ovulatory dysfunction occurs when the hormonal control of menstruation Overview of Menstrual Cycle Problems Complex interactions among hormones control the start of menstruation during puberty, the rhythms and duration of menstrual cycles during the reproductive years, and the end of menstruation... read more changes and the lining of the uterus sheds irregularly. It is more likely to occur in adolescents (when menstrual periods are just starting) or in women in their late 40s (when periods are nearing an end).
Other common causes of vaginal bleeding during the childbearing years include
Complications of pregnancy (sometimes when a woman who does not know she is pregnant)
Bleeding when the egg is released (at ovulation) during the menstrual cycle
Use of birth control pills (oral contraceptives Oral Contraceptives Contraceptive hormones can be Taken by mouth (oral contraceptives) Inserted into the vagina (vaginal rings) Applied to the skin (patch) Implanted under the skin read more ), if there is spotting or bleeding between periods (called breakthrough bleeding)
After menopause Menopause Menopause is the permanent end of menstrual periods, ovulation, and fertility. For up to several years before and just after menopause, estrogen levels fluctuate widely, periods become irregular... read more , the most common cause is
Age-related thinning of the lining of the vagina (formerly called atrophic vaginitis) or uterus (part of the genitourinary syndrome of menopause)
Less common causes
Cervical cancer Cervical Cancer Cervical cancer develops in the cervix (the lower part of the uterus). Most cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Cervical cancer usually results from infection... read more , vaginal cancer Vaginal Cancer Cancer of the vagina, an uncommon cancer, usually develops in the cells lining the vagina, typically in women over 60 years old. Vaginal cancer may cause abnormal vaginal bleeding, particularly... read more , or cancer of the lining of the uterus Cancer of the Uterus The most common type of cancer of the uterus develops in the lining of the uterus (endometrium) and is called endometrial cancer. Endometrial cancer usually affects women after menopause. It... read more (endometrial cancer) can cause bleeding, usually after menopause. Cancer is not a common cause during the childbearing years.
Certain hormonal disorders (such as hypothyroidism Hypothyroidism Hypothyroidism is underactivity of the thyroid gland that leads to inadequate production of thyroid hormones and a slowing of vital body functions. Facial expressions become dull, the voice... read more ) are a less common cause of bleeding.
Children may have hormonal abnormalities that cause puberty to begin too early—a disorder called precocious puberty Early Puberty Early (precocious) puberty is sexual maturation that begins before the average age. The cause of early puberty is often unknown, but it may be caused by structural abnormalities or tumors in... read more . In these children, menstrual periods start, breasts develop, and pubic and underarm hair appears too soon.
Rarely, bleeding is caused by a tumor or an injury resulting from unsuspected child abuse.
Evaluation of Vaginal Bleeding
Doctors first focus on determining whether the cause of vaginal bleeding is a serious or life-threatening disorder (such as a ruptured ectopic pregnancy Ectopic Pregnancy Ectopic pregnancy is attachment (implantation) of a fertilized egg in an abnormal location, such as the fallopian tubes. In an ectopic pregnancy, the fetus cannot survive. When an ectopic pregnancy... read more ) and whether the bleeding is excessive, possibly resulting in shock.
Doctors check for pregnancy in all women of childbearing age.
In women with vaginal bleeding, certain characteristics are cause for concern:
Loss of consciousness, weakness, light-headedness, cold and sweaty skin, difficulty breathing, and a weak and rapid pulse (which indicate shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the organs is low, decreasing delivery of oxygen and thus causing organ damage and sometimes death. Blood pressure is usually low... read more )
Bleeding that occurs before menstrual periods start (before puberty) or after they stop (after menopause)
Bleeding during pregnancy
In children, difficulty walking or sitting, bruises or tears around the genitals or anus or mouth, and/or vaginal discharge or itching (which may be signs of sexual abuse)
Bleeding is considered excessive if any of the following occur:
Women lose more than about a cup of blood.
More than 1 pad or tampon is saturated per hour for a few hours.
The blood contains large clots.
When to see a doctor
Women with most warning signs should see a doctor immediately, as should those with large clots or clumps of tissue in the blood or with symptoms suggesting a bleeding disorder. Symptoms of a bleeding disorder include easy bruising, excessive bleeding during toothbrushing or after minor cuts, and rashes of tiny reddish purple dots or larger splotches (indicating bleeding in the skin). However, if the only warning sign is vaginal bleeding before puberty or after menopause, a delay of a week or so is not harmful.
Women without warning signs should schedule a visit when practical, but a delay of several days is not likely to be harmful.
If vaginal bleeding continues in newborns for more than a few days, or is heavy or foul smelling, they should be seen by a doctor.
What the doctor does
Doctors first ask the woman (or caregiver) questions about her symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the bleeding and the tests that may need to be done (see table Some Causes and Features of Vaginal Bleeding Some Causes and Features of Vaginal Bleeding ).
Doctors ask about the bleeding:
How many pads or tampons are used per day or hour
How long bleeding lasts
When it started
When it occurs in relation to menstrual periods and sexual activity
They also ask about the woman's menstrual history:
How old she was when menstrual periods started
How long they last
How heavy they are
How long the interval between periods is
Whether they are regular
The woman is asked whether she has had previous episodes of abnormal bleeding, has had a disorder that can cause bleeding (such as a recent miscarriage), or takes birth control pills, other hormones, or other drugs that can cause excessive bleeding, (such as anticoagulants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
The woman is asked about other symptoms, such as light-headedness, abdominal pain, and excessive bleeding after toothbrushing or a minor cut.
The physical examination includes a pelvic examination Pelvic Examination For gynecologic care, a woman should choose a health care practitioner with whom she can comfortably discuss sensitive topics, such as sex, birth control, pregnancy, and problems related to... read more . During the examination, doctors can identify disorders of the cervix, uterus, vagina, vulva, or urethra in women of all ages. In children, a general examination is done first to check for early (precocious) puberty Early Puberty Early (precocious) puberty is sexual maturation that begins before the average age. The cause of early puberty is often unknown, but it may be caused by structural abnormalities or tumors in... read more (based on the presence of pubic hair and breast development), and a pelvic examination is done only if necessary.
If no blood is present in the vagina, a rectal examination may be done to determine whether bleeding is coming from the digestive tract.
If women are of childbearing age, doctors always do
A urine or blood test for pregnancy
If the urine pregnancy test is negative but doctors still suspect pregnancy, a blood test for pregnancy is done. It involves measuring a hormone produced by the placenta called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The blood test is more accurate than the urine test when a pregnancy is very early (less than 5 weeks).
Tests commonly done include
Blood tests to measure thyroid hormone levels
If bleeding has been heavy or lasted a long time, a complete blood cell count to check for anemia
Other blood tests are done depending on the disorder doctors suspect. For example, if a bleeding disorder is suspected, the blood's ability to clot is assessed. If polycystic ovary syndrome Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Polycystic ovary syndrome is characterized by irregular or no menstrual periods and often obesity or symptoms caused by high levels of male hormones (androgens), such as excess body hair and... read more is suspected, blood tests to measure androgen hormone levels are done.
Ultrasonography is often used to look for abnormalities in the reproductive organs if women have risk factors for endometrial cancer or if doctors suspect problems such as fibroids, polyps, or a tumor. For ultrasonography, a handheld ultrasound device is usually inserted into the vagina, but it may be placed on the abdomen.
If ultrasonography detects thickening of the uterine lining (endometrial hyperplasia), hysteroscopy or sonohysterography may be done to look for small growths in the uterus. For hysteroscopy Hysteroscopy Sometimes doctors recommend screening tests, which are tests that are done to look for disorders in people who have no symptoms. If women have symptoms related to the reproductive system (gynecologic... read more , a viewing tube is inserted into the uterus through the vagina. For sonohysterography Saline Sonography Sometimes doctors recommend screening tests, which are tests that are done to look for disorders in people who have no symptoms. If women have symptoms related to the reproductive system (gynecologic... read more , fluid is injected into the uterus during ultrasonography to make abnormalities easier to identity.
If results of these tests are abnormal or if they are inconclusive, doctors may take a sample of tissue from the lining of the uterus for analysis in the following circumstances:
Women are over age 45.
Women have risk factors for cancer of the reproductive tract, including cancers of the lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer) and ovaries.
Too much estrogen is being produced, as occurs in women with polycystic ovary syndrome Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Polycystic ovary syndrome is characterized by irregular or no menstrual periods and often obesity or symptoms caused by high levels of male hormones (androgens), such as excess body hair and... read more or a high body mass index Obesity Obesity is a chronic, recurring complex disorder characterized by excess body weight. Obesity is influenced by a combination of factors that includes genetics, hormones, behavior, and the environment... read more .
In postmenopausal women, the lining of the uterus (endometrium) is thickened (seen on an ultrasound).
The sample may be obtained by suction (through a tube) or by scraping—a procedure called dilation and curettage Dilation and Curettage Sometimes doctors recommend screening tests, which are tests that are done to look for disorders in people who have no symptoms. If women have symptoms related to the reproductive system (gynecologic... read more (D and C). In postmenopausal women, the sample is usually obtained by hysteroscopy, which enables doctors to see inside the uterus and locate the abnormality.
Other tests may be done, depending on which disorders seem possible. For example, a biopsy of the cervix may be done to check for cancer of the cervix.
If abnormal bleeding does not result from any of the usual causes, it may be related to changes in the hormonal control of the menstrual cycle.
Treatment of Vaginal Bleeding
If women are have extremely heavy bleeding and a very low blood pressure, they are immediately given fluids intravenously and blood transfusions as needed to restore blood pressure. Laparoscopy or laparotomy is often required if there is an emergency. For laparoscopy, doctors make a small incision just below the navel and insert a viewing tube (laparoscope). Laparotomy requires a large incision into the abdomen. Both procedures enable doctors to directly to directly view organs and look for abnormalities.
When vaginal bleeding results from another disorder, that disorder is treated if possible. If bleeding has caused iron deficiency, women are given iron supplements.
Polyps, fibroids, cancers, and some benign tumors may be surgically removed from the uterus.
Essentials for Older Women: Vaginal Bleeding
Postmenopausal bleeding (occurring more than 12 months after the last menstrual period) is relatively common but is always considered abnormal. Such bleeding can indicate a precancerous disorder (such as thickening of the lining of the uterus) or cancer. Thus, if such bleeding occurs, older women should see a doctor promptly so that cancer can be ruled out or be treated immediately.
Older women should see a doctor promptly if they have
Any vaginal bleeding
A vaginal discharge that is pink or brown, possibly containing small amounts of blood
However, postmenopausal bleeding has many other causes.
The most common cause is
Thinning of the lining of the uterus or vagina (genitourinary syndrome of menopause)
Other causes include
Use of estrogen or other hormone therapy, particularly when use is stopped
Polyps in the cervix or uterus
Because the tissues of the vagina may be thin and dry, examination of the vagina may be uncomfortable. Doctors may try using a smaller instrument (speculum) to make the examination less uncomfortable.
During the childbearing years, the most common cause of abnormal vaginal bleeding is pregnancy.
In women who are not pregnant, the most common cause is hormonal imbalance (ovulatory dysfunction), which can cause abnormal uterine bleeding.
Abnormal uterine bleeding is related to changes in the hormonal control of the menstrual cycle that prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg.
In children, the cause is usually a foreign object or an injury, but sometimes sexual abuse is the cause.
In women of childbearing age, a pregnancy test is done even when women do not think they could be pregnant.
If any vaginal bleeding occurs after menopause, an evaluation to rule out cancer is necessary.