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What is Placenta Previa?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Placenta previa is a complication which emerges in around one in every 200 pregnancies carried to term. It is created when the placenta implants itself too close to the cervix, sometimes even partially covering the cervical opening. As the uterus and cervix undergo changes in the late stages of pregnancy to prepare for birth, breakthrough bleeding can occur, and if the placenta previa is still present at the onset of labor, vaginal birth can be very dangerous.

There are three different kinds of placenta previa: marginal, partial, and complete. Marginal placenta previa happens when the placenta is close to the cervix, but it doesn't cover it. The partial and complete types, as their names imply, partially or completely cover the cervix.

In the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, placenta previa is sometimes diagnosed on a prenatal ultrasound. While it is something to watch for, it is not something to worry about just yet, because sometimes the placenta grows into the upper part of the uterus, where the blood supply is more plentiful, and the problem resolves on its own. If this condition is diagnosed in the second half of pregnancy, however, it can be a cause for concern.

Sometimes, a doctor notices the problem on a routine ultrasound, and at other times, it is diagnosed after an expecting mother reports painless bleeding or spotting. Because the time of delivery is so much closer, risks for the mother and baby can increase. Women are usually put on pelvic rest, which means no pelvic exams or intercourse, and they may be encouraged to avoid heavy lifting. If breakthrough bleeding and placenta previa persist into the end of the third trimester, a mother may be put on bed rest.

If placenta previa is present at the time of delivery, most doctors will recommend a Cesarean section, which will allow them to be get the baby or babies out safely with a reduced risk of hemorrhage. In the event that breakthrough bleeding is severe in the last weeks of pregnancy, an immediate C-section may be required, even if the baby will be premature. The mother may require blood transfusions to compensate for the loss of blood, and she will have to be monitored after the birth to ensure that the bleeding has fully stopped.

Several factors can increase the risk of placenta previa, including age, smoking, a history of having the condition, twins and other multiples, and previous births. Like other complications of pregnancy, this one is entirely out of the mother's control, although she can reduce some risk factors, which is why routine prenatal care to check for complications and potential problems with delivery is so important.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ElizaBennett — On May 25, 2011

I did not have routine ultrasound, so my placenta previa wasn't caught early. The main symptom of placenta previa is bright red bleeding (as opposed to the pink or red spotting that anyone can have and is usually caused by irritation of the cervix). That's how mine was diagnosed.

Toward the end of my second trimester, I started having bright red bleeding. I was afraid it meant I was losing the baby or going into very premature labor, so as serious as placenta previa is, it was still a relief to find out that was the cause! I had to have a c-section instead of the natural birth I'd dreamed of, but then, this kind of thing is why c-sections were developed in the first place.

By rugbygirl — On May 22, 2011

I experienced placenta previa during my pregnancy. It resolved by about 30 weeks, so I didn't have to have a C-section, but while it lasted it was inconvenient. I've always loved to work out and my doctor told me I shouldn't exercise. I also wasn't allowed to "exercise" with my husband :-(. By the time it resolved, I'd gotten so huge that both those activities were a lot more of a challenge than they had been before!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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