What is a chemical pregnancy?

What are the signs of a chemical pregnancy? Is chemical pregnancy the same as a miscarriage? Find out why chemical pregnancy happens and whether it's likely to happen again

woman being comforted by her partner

A chemical pregnancy is a very early miscarriage – usually occurring around the 5th week of pregnancy (so, for some women, before they even miss a period). It happens when a sperm fertilises your egg but, later on, the egg fails to survive.

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It is called a ‘chemical pregnancy’ because, says Dr Philippa Kaye, “it is only the positive pregnancy test that show that you are pregnant. It would be too early to see anything on an ultrasound scan.”

What are the signs of a chemical pregnancy?

The symptoms really vary. Some women won’t feel any different at all. Others may experience signs that are very similar to how they feel just before their period, such as tender breasts and mood swings.

If you have a chemical pregnancy, you’re likely to get a positive pregnancy test result and, somewhere in the next week or so after your period is due:

  • a bleed that resembles a period
  • cramping or light spotting before the bleed.

A chemical pregnancy, says Dr Philippa, feels “the same as your normal period or even a little bit heavier”.

On our forum, amy17, experienced a chemical pregnancy. She says, “Last week I had 4 faint positives, there was 100% a pink line there, even my OH was convinced I was pregnant from the test! My AF [period] was due on the Thursday and it didn’t arrive, I took another test and it was a definite positive! Friday morning AF arrived but was majorly majorly heavy! I had severe pains and have had clots since Friday.”

Many women who don’t take a pregnancy test never know that they’ve had an early miscarriage. They assume any bleeding is their usual period.

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How do I know if it’s a chemical pregnancy or something else like implantation bleeding?

Implantation bleeding (or spotting) is the early bleeding that occurs when the fertilised egg embeds into the uterus lining. “This usually happens around week 3 of your cycle, a week or so before you expect your period,” says Dr Philippa.

“Usually this is extremely light spotting, or light pinkish discharge and is short-lived. Many women do not have implantation bleeding.”

A chemical pregnancy bleed occurs at a later point in the cycle, around or after the time you would expect your next period to occur. And it is heavier than implantation bleeding – it will look like your normal period.

Always contact a health professional if you are unsure of the cause of your bleeding.

Why do you get a positive pregnancy test with a chemical pregnancy?

“In a chemical pregnancy,” says Dr Kaye, “the test is initially positive but then your period may start and a further pregnancy test is negative.” This is because, even with a chemical pregnancy, the hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotrophin) is present. It will drop after you get your period, though.

Gabbysmom, on our forum, tells us what happened to her: “OK, so last month I found out I was pregnant and me and my husband were very overjoyed until I got my period, followed by a negative pregnancy test. My doctor told me I had a chemical pregnancy.”

Do I need to see a doctor after a chemical pregnancy?

You don’t need to see your GP to discuss trying for a baby after an early miscarriage unless you are among the small minority that have 3 or more chemical pregnancies or miscarriages.

How soon after a chemical pregnancy can I get pregnant again?

This is the all-important question for those trying to conceive (TTC) after a chemical pregnancy. “There is no medical reason to wait for any length of time after a chemical pregnancy. If a couple wanted to, they could try and conceive again straight away,” says Dr Philippa.

Your fertility is not affected by a chemical pregnancy. “You may ovulate as normal (approximately 14 days before the next expected period), or may find that your next cycle is slightly longer than previously,” she says. Consider the 1st day of bleeding as the 1st day of your cycle.

It may, of course, take you a while to get pregnant again but it’s not unknown for things to move pretty fast, as one of our forum mums, demmi, found out: “I’ve just got a positive on my ovulation predictor kit only 15 days after a chemical pregnancy. I was convinced it would take my body months to get back to normal.”

What causes a chemical pregnancy?

It’s thought there are a number of things that could cause chemical pregnancy, including:

  • chromosomal abnormalities
  • the egg implanting outside the uterus
  • clotting problems
  • issues with hormone levels
  • an infection like chlamydia or syphilis
  • an inadequate uterus lining.

If you’ve had a chemical pregnancy, what can you do to try and ensure a successful pregnancy next time?

“The vast majority of chemical pregnancies are caused by problems with the genetic make-up of the embryo itself and so cannot be prevented,” says Dr Philippa.

“However, stopping smoking, giving up alcohol and any recreational drugs, eating healthily and being at a healthy weight may help – and certainly will help your own health.”

Is a chemical pregnancy common?

Yes, it actually happens in 50% to 60% of first pregnancies – but often goes undetected. You’d only know if you did an early test (before your period comes).

“When I got a phone call from my GP to tell me that, from my blood results, he thought I’d had a very early miscarriage, or a chemical pregnancy,” says forum mum Lynz_81, “he said it was very common.”

But be encouraged: having 1 chemical pregnancy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re likely to have another.

Does IVF raise your chance of having a chemical pregnancy?

No, there’s no scientific evidence that women who conceive via IVF have an increased chance of miscarriage, so long as they are using fresh embryos.

“Miscarriage rates are slightly higher in patients using frozen embryos,” says Dr Philippa, who also points out that if you’re having IVF, you may well do a pregnancy test at the first possible opportunity and so are more likely to pick up a chemical pregnancy.

It’s also worth knowing that older mothers, who, obviously, more commonly use IVF, are more susceptible to early miscarriage. “Age affects the quality of the eggs produced. Older women are more likely to have a chemical pregnancy or very early miscarriage,” explains Dr Philippa.

Mum Sharringtonmumdrum on our forum reveals: “I’ve had 3 chemical pregnancies. All were during the course of fertility treatment. so I was having regular blood tests to check hormone levels approaching ovulation, after ovulation (or egg collection when I was doing ICSI) so I knew I was pregnant exactly at 4+0. I lost each one by 4+3.”

Is it normal to grieve after a chemical pregnancy?

Yes! You’re really not alone in that. Lots of women find a chemical pregnancy a worrying, confusing experience, and feel a level of grief afterwards.

“For many, this represents the loss of a baby, however early in pregnancy,” says Ruth Bender-Atik, National Director of the Miscarriage Association.

“Many, but not all, will have a real sense of loss and grief, perhaps for months or even longer. Some will just feel sad and/or disappointed and then move on.”

So should I avoid taking an early pregnancy test next time?

This can be a tricky decision, especially as some pregnancy tests can now be used as early as 4 days before your period.

As Libragirl2015, who posts on our forum, says: “I’m 5 days away from AF [‘Aunty Flo’ or period] and 10 days post ovulation and I’ve had what I think is a strong BFP [big fat positive],”she says. “But I’m scared of getting my hopes up cos I’ve tested so early.”

Waiting to test until after your period is due can be hard, especially if you are super-keen to find out. However, waiting to test until you have missed a period can mean that your hCG levels are higher and you are more likely to get an accurate result. It also means that you avoid the uncertainty and worry that naturally accompanies a chemical pregnancy.

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