What Is a Chemical Pregnancy and Is It a Miscarriage?
Imagine this: You get a positive pregnancy test only to start your period a few days later. Chemical pregnancies are both common and extremely heartbreaking, yet very little is understood about them.
A chemical pregnancy is a very early miscarriage. The sperm and the egg have met, but while conception has taken place, development beyond chemical changes in the woman's body don’t happen. That's because in very early pregnancy, the cells of the fertilized egg are still developing, but the fetal sac and fetus have not begun to develop yet.
Thus, the pregnancy chemicals, hormones, and cells have started to multiply, but the other physical attributes of a pregnancy have not. That’s why this early form of miscarriage is called a chemical pregnancy. It's a pregnancy that ended when the only detectable evidence of it was through a hormone test and not through an ultrasound, or physical examination by a doctor.
Is It a Real Miscarriage?
Yes. It was a real pregnancy and it is a real miscarriage.
In fact, it should really be called an early miscarriage since the term “chemical pregnancy” implies that the pregnancy wasn’t real or that it was some kind of mix-up.
What Is the Difference?
The only difference between the two is time. Both are the loss of a pregnancy, but they take place at difference stages in the development process of the baby.
Often, and quite unfortunately, very early miscarriages are not thought of as real pregnancies or miscarriages when in fact they are both. And while the physical recovery process is different in a later-term miscarriage than in an early-term one, both bring grief and disappointment.
When Is an Early Miscarriage Considered a Chemical Pregnancy?
The term is used when a woman miscarries after conception but before the fetus has developed.
Typically, it happens at around three or four weeks pregnant. So basically, this occurs at about the time that a woman’s body is producing just enough hCG (the pregnancy hormone) to receive a positive result on a home pregnancy test.
What’s even more confusing about this kind of pregnancy is that they often go unnoticed because they can look and act like a late period. When women are trying to get pregnant they'll chart symptoms, keep track of their ovulation, and take an early pregnancy test about a week before their period is due—these women will know almost immediately if they have an early miscarriage because they're acutely aware of the changes in their body.
However, a woman who is not trying to conceive may chalk her late period up to stress and not even realize that she's having a miscarriage.
Are They Painful or Dangerous?
Chemical pregnancies can be painful, just like some periods are painful, but the severity of pain really varies from woman to woman. Most commonly though, they are much like a regular period, but with stronger cramps and a heavier flow.
Since some go undetected, they are not typically considered dangerous. That being said, if you’re aware that you’ve had an early miscarriage, you should absolutely inform your doctor so that the two of you can keep track of any future changes or complications.
Why Do They Happen?
No one really understands why chemical pregnancies happen, what causes them, or how to definitively prevent them.
However, contrary to popular belief, they are not the result of a failure to implant. Implantation must take place for hCG to begin developing and for a pregnancy test to come up positive.
In the case of a chemical pregnancy, it’s possible that while implantation occurred, it happened incorrectly or that there was a chromosomal defect in the fertilized egg that caused the woman’s body to reject it.
These early miscarriages happen much more frequently than anyone realizes. In fact, half of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and many of these cases are chemical pregnancies.
How to Get Support
Whether the pregnancy was planned or not, going through a miscarriage at any stage can be totally devastating. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you have experienced an early miscarriage:
- It's necessary to grieve. This may seem like an obvious pointer but in the case of a chemical pregnancy, some women feel an obligation to move past the experience quickly. It's important to accept that what you've experienced isn't some weird phenomenon that's not serious. It is serious. It's the loss of a pregnancy and that has emotional ramifications.
- You don't have to talk about it with everyone. Chances are this early on, you've only told a handful of people anyway. How and when you decide to approach the subject of your loss is up to you.
- Don't let the fear of a future miscarriage paralyze you. Again, half (half!!) of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage. That's a sad, hard fact of life that you can't let hold you down in fear. And you're certainly not alone. Reach out and find other women who've had your experience. Online forums are a great way to interact with other women going through the same thing you are.
For those trying to conceive again, there are endless resources available online. Because early miscarriages wreak less havoc on a woman's body than a later miscarriage, not all doctors will discourage a woman from trying to conceive right away as they would with a later miscarriage. Regardless, you should talk to your doctor about what's best for you and your body because everyone is different.
It might also be helpful to find an online support group for women trying to conceive. In the group, you can share stories and tips and feel comfortable with other women who know what you're going through.
A Note About Evaporation Lines
An evaporation line (or evap) occurs as a test is drying. It gives the appearance of a faint second line on the test but is NOT a positive. Instead, it's a shadow of the line that would show up if you were pregnant and should not be mistaken as anything but a negative test. In some cases, women will consider this a positive test and when they get their period feel super confused.
While many test instructions will urge you to read any line, no matter how vague, as a positive result that's misleading, perplexing, and often emotionally devastating for those of us who have ever misinterpreted an evaporation line as a positive test.
So, how can you tell the difference? Most of the time, it's obvious - if you have to squint, hold the test super close and then super far away to decide if there's a line, or if you find yourself holding it up to the light - take it as an evaporation line and test again in two days to see if there are any changes.