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    Vaginal Exam for Preterm Labor

    If you have symptoms of preterm labor, your doctor or nurse-midwife may examine you by feeling your cervix. If your contractions continue over a period of hours, you may be examined periodically to see whether your cervix is opening (dilating) or thinning (effacing).

    These exams allow your health professional to:

    • Find out how much your cervix has opened and thinned.
    • Find out how far the baby has moved down the birth canal (station).
    • Check for fluid leaking from your vagina using a sterile speculum. If fluid is present, it will be tested to determine whether it is amniotic fluid, which is a sign that your amniotic sac has ruptured.

    Why It Is Done

    Vaginal exams are done when a pregnant woman has:

    • Uterine contractions that may have changed her cervix and may be preterm labor. The cervix may open and thin without strong or painful contractions.
    • Unusual pelvic pressure or back pain.
    • Vaginal bleeding.

    Results

    Preterm labor is diagnosed when a woman who is 20 to 37 weeks pregnant has uterine contractions and her cervix has changed, as seen with a vaginal exam.

    Preterm labor is not diagnosed if contractions are occurring but the cervix is not becoming thinner or more dilated (open).

    What To Think About

    When a vaginal exam is not done to assess for preterm labor

    When the amniotic membranes rupture early (preterm premature rupture of membranes, or pPROM), sterile speculum exams are kept to a minimum, and digital exams are avoided. This is meant to reduce the risk of infecting the uterus and fetus.

    When the placenta is known to be overlapping or covering the cervix (placenta previa), vaginal exams are completely avoided. Disturbing the placenta can trigger bleeding.

    Complete the medical test information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you prepare for this test.

    ByHealthwise Staff
    Primary Medical ReviewerSarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
    Specialist Medical ReviewerWilliam Gilbert, MD - Maternal and Fetal Medicine

    Current as ofNovember 14, 2014

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: November 14, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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