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Early embryo loss (‘blighted ovum’)

Early embryo loss and the term ‘blighted ovum’ both describe a particular type of early miscarriage.

In this situation, the cells that should become a baby stop developing early on, and the tiny embryo is reabsorbed. However, the pregnancy sac, where the baby should develop, continues to grow.

We prefer not to use the term ‘blighted ovum’, which many people find upsetting as well as confusing.  Many doctors also think it is an old-fashioned and unhelpful way of describing a miscarriage.  But it is still widely used in hospitals, so we include it here to make it easier for people to find our information.

What causes early embryo loss?

Doctors think that this kind of loss happens because of an issue with the early development of the baby – for example, a chance chromosome error.

 How is it diagnosed?

Early embryo loss is diagnosed by ultrasound scan, most often between the 8th and 13th week of pregnancy, sometimes at a routine early scan.  The scan shows a pregnancy sac, which doesn’t have a developing baby inside as it should. This is sometimes described as showing ‘no fetal pole’.

What can make this kind of loss particularly difficult is that pregnancy hormone levels can stay high for some time after the baby has died, so you may still experience pregnancy symptoms.  Because of this, you may have no idea that anything is wrong and being diagnosed can come as a real shock.

How is it treated?

It can take time for the pregnancy hormones to drop and for the physical process of miscarriage to begin naturally and some women choose this option.  But the process can be aided or ‘managed’ by medical treatment (medication) or surgery (an operation).  We explain these options in this leaflet

Unless you need emergency treatment, you should usually be able to choose what treatment to have and be given information to help you decide between them. However, your medical history may make some options unsuitable or your hospital may not offer all options.

Will it happen again?

It is possible, but unlikely. Early embryo loss is a chance event and most women go on to have a healthy pregnancy.

How you might feel

I feel as if I shouldn’t be so upset, if there was no baby

There are no rules about how you should or shouldn’t feel.  But you were pregnant and may well have started thinking ‘baby’ and planning for the future.  Even if you find out that the pregnancy stopped developing very early on, you may still have a real sense of loss.

Helping you through

Whether it happens early or late in pregnancy, any experience of miscarriage can be very distressing. You may find it helpful to talk to one of our helpline team:

You might also want to talk with others who have been through something similar:

You don’t have to face this alone.