Skip to content

Women's Health

Font Size

Misoprostol for Abortion


Generic Name Brand Name
misoprostol Cytotec

How It Works


  • Softens and opens (dilates) the cervix.
  • Causes uterine contractions.
  • Starts (induces) labor.

Why It Is Used

Misoprostol is a prostaglandin medicine used to terminate a pregnancy by starting labor. It is more effective when used in combination with methotrexate or mifepristone than when used alone. This is an unlabeled use of misoprostol.

Misoprostol is also used to prevent stomach ulcers (labeled use) and for induction of labor for childbirth (unlabeled use).

Misoprostol may also be used to:

  • Complete a spontaneous missed abortion (incomplete miscarriage).
  • Start labor in second-trimester abortions.
  • Start labor in third-trimester abortions. Third-trimester abortions are not done unless the fetus has died or has severe medical problems and will not survive.
  • Dilate the cervix 3 to 4 hours before a surgical abortion procedure.
  • Soften the cervix for induction of labor.
  • Soften the cervix for special gynecologic tests.

How Well It Works

Misoprostol used alone may terminate a pregnancy. But it is more often used with other medicines, such as mifepristone or methotrexate, in first-trimester abortions.

Misoprostol alone, moistened and used vaginally, is effective in over 90 out of 100 cases in terminating first-trimester pregnancies of less than 8 weeks.1

Misoprostol can be given orally, buccally (dissolved between the gums and cheek), or vaginally. Misoprostol is slightly more effective when taken vaginally than when taken by mouth.1 But many doctors are only giving misoprostol by mouth because of reports of a rare, fatal infection that affected a few women after using vaginal misoprostol. Some studies have shown that taking misoprostol buccally works as well as when it is given vaginally or orally.2, 3

Side Effects

This method of abortion causes symptoms similar to a miscarriage (such as severe cramping and vaginal bleeding) as tissue and clots pass from the uterus. Symptoms may include:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported that a few women have died from a severe infection (sepsis) after having an abortion using mifepristone and vaginal misoprostol.4 Signs of serious infection include weakness, nausea, and diarrhea with or without belly pain. This rare infection may not cause a fever. Call your doctor or go to the hospital if you have any of these signs of a serious infection after having a medical abortion.

Signs of complications

Call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms after an abortion:

  • Severe bleeding. Both medical and surgical abortions usually cause bleeding that is different from a normal menstrual period. Severe bleeding can mean:
    • Passing clots that are bigger than a golf ball, lasting 2 or more hours.
    • Soaking more than 2 large pads in an hour, for 2 hours in a row.
    • Bleeding heavily for 12 hours in a row.
  • Signs of infection in your whole body, such as headache, muscle aches, dizziness, or a general feeling of illness. Severe infection is possible without fever.
  • Severe pain in the belly that is not relieved by pain medicine, rest, or heat
  • Hot flushes or a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher that lasts longer than 4 hours
  • Vomiting lasting more than 4 to 6 hours
  • Sudden belly swelling or rapid heart rate
  • Vaginal discharge that has increased in amount or smells bad
  • Pain, swelling, or redness in the genital area

Call your doctor for an appointment if you have had any of these symptoms after a recent abortion:

  • Bleeding (not spotting) for longer than 2 weeks
  • New, unexplained symptoms that may be caused by medicines used in your treatment
  • No menstrual period within 6 weeks after the procedure
  • Signs and symptoms of depression. Hormonal changes after a pregnancy can cause depression that requires treatment.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Choosing a medical or surgical procedure for an abortion will depend on your past health, how many weeks pregnant you are, what options are available where you live, and your personal preferences.

Misoprostol is not used in women who have an allergy to misoprostol or other prostaglandins.

Misoprostol can cause fetal abnormalities, so a follow-up surgical abortion will be done if the medical abortion did not work.

The use of misoprostol for medical abortion is an unlabeled use. Misoprostol is approved (labeled) for preventing and treating stomach ulcers in people taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) on a long-term schedule.

Misoprostol does not have any known drug interactions.

Unlike other prostaglandins, misoprostol does not increase the risk of a heart attack or bronchospasm.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.


  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2005, reaffirmed 2009). Medical management of abortion. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 67. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 106(4): 871–882.

  2. Middleton T, et al. (2005). Randomized trial of mifepristone and buccal or vaginal misoprostol for abortion through 56 days of last menstrual period. Contraception, 72(5): 328–332.

  3. Winikoff B, et al. (2008). Two distinct oral routes of misoprostol in mifepristone medical abortion: A randomized controlled trial. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 112(6): 1303–1310.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2006). Public health advisory: Sepsis and medical abortion with mifepristone (Mifeprex). Available online:

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rebecca H. Allen, MD, MPH - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kirtly Jones, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last Revised August 31, 2012

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 31, 2012
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.

Today on WebMD

hands on abdomen
Test your knowledge.
womans hand on abdomen
Are you ready for baby?
birth control pills
Learn about your options.
Is it menopause or something else?
woman in bathtub
Doctor discussing screening with patient
bp app on smartwatch and phone
Expert views

Send yourself a link to download the app.

Loading ...

Please wait...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.


Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

Blood pressure check
hot water bottle on stomach
Attractive young woman standing in front of mirror