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Premature Rupture of the Membranes (PROM)

By Julie S. Moldenhauer, MD

Premature rupture of the membranes is the leaking of amniotic fluid from around the fetus before labor starts.

  • After the membranes rupture, labor often soon follows.

  • If labor does not begin within 6 to 12 hours, the risk of infections in the woman and fetus increases.

  • If the pregnancy is 34 weeks or more and the fetus’s lungs are mature, labor is usually started artificially (induced).

  • If the pregnancy is less than 34 weeks and the fetus's lungs are not mature enough, the woman is usually hospitalized, monitored closely, and given corticosteroids to help the fetus's lungs mature and given antibiotics to treat and prevent any infection that might trigger labor and/or harm the fetus.

  • If the pregnancy is less than 32 weeks, women may be given magnesium sulfate to reduce the risk of cerebral palsy.

Rupture of the membranes is commonly described as “the water breaks.” When the membranes break, the fluid within the membranes around the fetus (amniotic fluid) flows out from the vagina. The flow varies from a trickle to a gush. As soon as the membranes have ruptured, a woman should contact her doctor or midwife.

Did You Know...

  • As soon as their water breaks, pregnant women should contact their doctor or midwife

Usually, the fluid-filled membranes containing the fetus rupture during labor. But in about 10% of normal pregnancies, the membranes rupture before labor starts—premature rupture.

Premature rupture of the membranes may occur near the due date (at 37 weeks or later, when pregnancy is considered full term) or earlier (called preterm premature rupture if it occurs earlier than 37 weeks). If rupture is preterm, delivery is also likely to be too early (preterm).

Regardless of when premature rupture occurs, it increases the risk of problems such as

Infection of the uterus can cause a fever, a heavy or foul-smelling vaginal discharge, or abdominal pain.

If premature rupture results in premature birth, the newborn has an increased risk of the following:

  • Lung problems

  • Bleeding in the brain

  • Possibly death

When there is bleeding in the brain, the brain may not develop normally, causing problems such as cerebral palsy.

After the membranes rupture, contractions usually begin within 12 to 48 hours when the woman is near term but can take 4 days or longer if rupture occurs before 34 weeks of pregnancy.

Diagnosis

  • Examination of the vagina and cervix using a speculum

Using a speculum to spread the walls of the vagina, the doctor or midwife examines the vagina and cervix (the lower part of the uterus) to confirm that the membranes have ruptured and to estimate how much the cervix has opened (dilated).

If an infection is suspected, doctors may use a needle to remove a sample of amniotic fluid from around the uterus and analyze it (called amniocentesis).

Treatment

  • If the pregnancy is 34 weeks or more, usually artificial starting (induction) of labor

  • If the pregnancy is less than 34 weeks, usually rest, close monitoring usually in the hospital, antibiotics, and sometimes corticosteroids

  • If the pregnancy is less than 32 weeks, usually magnesium sulfate to prevent bleeding in the brain and problems with development of the newborn's brain

If labor does not begin within 6 to 12 hours, the risk of infection in the uterus and in the fetus increases. Therefore, a doctor or certified nurse midwife usually artificially starts labor ( induces labor), depending on whether the fetus is mature enough for delivery:

  • If the pregnancy is 34 weeks or more, the fetus is assumed to be mature enough.

  • If the pregnancy is less than 34 weeks, women are very closely monitored for signs of infection or labor in the hospital.

If the fetus is in severe distress or the uterus is infected, labor is usually induced and the baby is delivered regardless of the length of the pregnancy.

If labor needs to be delayed

If the pregnancy is less than 34 weeks, labor is delayed. The woman is advised to rest and to limit her activities as much as possible. She may be hospitalized so that she can be monitored closely. Her temperature and pulse rate are usually recorded at least 3 times daily. An increase in temperature or pulse rate may be an early sign of infection. If an infection develops, labor is promptly induced and the baby is delivered.

Antibiotics are begun when rupture has been confirmed. Usually, antibiotics (such as erythromycin, ampicillin, and amoxicillin) are given intravenously, then by mouth for several days. Antibiotics delay the start of labor by treating infections that can trigger labor, and they reduce the risk of infection in the newborn.

If the membranes rupture before the 32nd week of pregnancy, corticosteroids are given to help the fetus’s lungs mature.

If the pregnancy is less than 32 weeks, women may be given magnesium sulfate intravenously. This drug appears to substantially reduce the risk of bleeding in the newborn's brain and problems with development of the newborn's brain, such as cerebral palsy.

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* This is the Consumer Version. *