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Methotrexate and Misoprostol for Abortion

Examples

Generic Name Brand Name
methotrexate  
misoprostol Cytotec

How It Works

Methotrexate and misoprostol use is a two-step method.

  • First, methotrexate tablets are taken by mouth or an injection of methotrexate is given by your doctor. Methotrexate interferes with the growth of the placenta, which allows it to separate from the endometrium. This is an unlabeled use of methotrexate. For reference, see a picture of the reproductive organs.
  • Second, tablets of misoprostol are taken by mouth or inserted vaginally, usually 5 to 7 days later. Some doctors may give misoprostol buccally (dissolved between the gums and cheek). This medicine causes uterine contractions so that your body passes the uterine contents. The pregnancy usually ends at home within a day or two when the tissue from the uterus is passed.

A medical abortion usually requires at least two visits to your doctor over several weeks. For the first visit, one medicine is taken during the visit and a second medicine is given to be taken at home. The second visit is a follow-up appointment and is usually scheduled about 2 weeks after the first visit to make sure the abortion is complete and no complications are present. If a medical abortion is unsuccessful, a surgical abortion must be done to complete the process. (A fetus may not develop normally after exposure to methotrexate or misoprostol.)

You may also take pain medicine by mouth for this procedure.

Why It Is Used

A medical abortion with methotrexate offers women an early-pregnancy abortion option that doesn't involve surgery.

Methotrexate is also used for treatment of an ectopic pregnancy.

How Well It Works

A medical abortion with methotrexate and misoprostol is effective in over 90 out of 100 cases. Medical abortions can be done through 9 weeks of pregnancy. And when completed before 7 weeks, injected methotrexate is effective in 92 to 96 out of 100 cases.1

Misoprostol can be given orally, buccally (dissolved between the gums and cheek), or vaginally. 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. Experts do not know for sure if these deaths were related to the use of vaginal misoprostol.2

Methotrexate and misoprostol can take up to 4 weeks to be effective, which is longer than other abortion methods.1

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:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Headache.
  • Dizziness.
  • Chills or hot flushes (sweating and feeling overly hot).
  • Shivering.
  • Fatigue.

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 abdomen 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 that lasts more than 4 to 6 hours
  • Sudden abdominal (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 medical history, how many weeks pregnant you are, what options are available where you live, and your personal preferences.

Methotrexate for medical abortions has not been evaluated in women who have the following medical conditions:

Avoid alcohol and aspirin while using methotrexate and misoprostol for a medical abortion.

Avoid folic acid supplements.Folic acid (folate) can interfere with the action of methotrexate during a medical abortion.

Methotrexate can be used by women who have asthma.

A medical abortion does not require surgery. But if methotrexate fails, a vacuum aspiration must be done as follow-up. If the abortion is not completed, complications can include abnormal development of the fetus.

After a medical abortion

Expect that you may experience a wide range of emotional reactions after an abortion.

Depression can be triggered when pregnancy hormones change after an abortion. If you have more than 2 weeks of symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, sleep or appetite change, or feelings of sadness, emptiness, anxiety, or irritability, see your doctor about treatment.

Do not have sexual intercourse for at least 1 week or longer, as advised by your doctor.

When you start having intercourse again, use birth control, and use condoms to prevent infection. For more information, see the topic Birth Control.

Your next regular period may come at any time within 6 weeks after the abortion. Be sure to contact your doctor if you do not have a period in 6 weeks.

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

References

Citations

  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. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2006). Public health advisory: Sepsis and medical abortion with mifepristone (Mifeprex). Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/PublicHealthAdvisories/ucm051298.htm.

Credits

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

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