What is an ectopic pregnancy?

An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy that grows outside the womb. A fertilised egg implants itself somewhere it should not, usually in one of the fallopian tubes (the tubes that carry the egg from the ovaries to the uterus).

When this happens, the pregnancy cannot continue. It’s not possible for a foetus to grow outside of the womb. It will usually have to be removed with a small operation or with medication.

In the UK, roughly 1 in every 90 pregnancies is ectopic.

What are the signs?

Symptoms tend to develop between the 4th and 12th week of pregnancy. You could experience a combination of:

  • a missed period and other signs of pregnancy

  • pain low down on one side of the stomach

  • vaginal bleeding or a brown watery discharge

  • pain in the top of your shoulder, because the phrenic nerve which runs from your diaphragm through your chest to your neck, can be irritated

  • discomfort when peeing or pooing

Contact your GP or call NHS 111 if you have a combination of any of these symptoms at a time when you might be pregnant – even if you haven't had a positive pregnancy test.

These symptoms might not be a sign of anything serious. But if it is an ectopic pregnancy, it can be very serious and may need urgent medical attention, so it's important to get medical advice right away.

In rare cases, an ectopic pregnancy can cause a fallopian tube to split open. This is called a ruptured fallopian tube. This is a serious, life threatening condition and must be treated as a medical emergency.

Call 999 or go to A&E immediately if you experience a combination of these symptoms:

  • a sharp, sudden, intense pain in your stomach

  • looking very pale

  • feeling sick, dizzy or fainting

Written by Helen Burkitt. Senior Sexual Health and Contraception Nurse
Last updated at: 02 February 2024
Published on: 12 September 2023