Spotting is the term used for very light vaginal bleeding that isn’t your regular menstrual period. It’s often described as just a few drops of blood that isn’t heavy enough for you to need a pad, tampon, or menstrual cup.

Bleeding outside your period can be really alarming, but most of the time it’s nothing to worry about. There are several reasons why a woman might experience spotting. Spotting can be an early symptom of pregnancy, a side effect of birth control, or a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

The amount of time the spotting lasts depends on the cause.

Between 10 and 14 days after you become pregnant, the fertilized egg — now called a blastocyst — implants itself into the lining of the uterus. The implantation can irritate and move the lining, which can cause spotting. This is usually referred to as implantation bleeding. Only about a third of pregnant women experience implantation bleeding after they get pregnant, but it’s considered a normal symptom of pregnancy.

In most cases, implantation spotting only lasts from a few hours to a couple days, but some women report having implantation spotting for up to seven days.

You may experience some light cramping and soreness during implantation. For this reason, women often mistake implantation spotting for their regular period. However, implantation spotting typically won’t last as long as a normal period. Bleeding from implantation also doesn’t get heavier like a regular period.

Implantation spotting will stop on its own and doesn’t require treatment. You’ll likely develop other early pregnancy symptoms, likely nausea, sore breasts, and fatigue, shortly after implantation.

About half of all pregnant women experience a small amount of bleeding during pregnancy. While spotting can occur at any stage of pregnancy, it occurs most often in the first trimester (weeks 1 through 12).

Early pregnancy spotting

Spotting during early pregnancy usually isn’t serious. Most women who experience light bleeding during pregnancy go on to deliver healthy babies.

However, spotting could also be a sign of a miscarriage. Miscarriages occur in roughly 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies. If this is the case, the spotting may get heavier and you may also pass fluid and tissue from the vagina. The bleeding may last just a few hours, or up to two weeks.

Sometimes during a miscarriage, the embryo is absorbed into your body. In this case, you may not have a lot of bleeding at all. Following a miscarriage, you should start having regular periods again in three to six weeks.

Spotting during the first trimester could also be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg implants itself in the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus. Bleeding can occur if the fallopian tube ruptures. Ectopic pregnancies are dangerous and must be removed with medication or surgery.

Late pregnancy spotting

In the second or third trimester, spotting could indicate a problem with the cervix or placenta, such as an incompetent cervix, infection, or a placental abruption.

You may also experience some light spotting if you have sex while you’re pregnant. Spotting after sex typically only lasts a few hours.

Right before giving birth, you might also have some light spotting, often mixed with mucous. This could be a sign that labor is starting.

A small percentage of women have light spotting every month at the same time they ovulate. Ovulation is when a woman’s ovary releases a mature egg. It occurs roughly 11 to 21 days after the first day of your last period. Ovulation spotting usually only lasts a day or two at the same time as ovulation.

As a reminder, any type of hormonal birth control (like the pill, implants, or injections) prevents normal ovulation symptoms. You shouldn’t be experiencing ovulation spotting if you’re on any of these methods of birth control.

Some forms of birth control (contraception) increase the likelihood of experiencing spotting. This is also known as breakthrough bleeding.

Some women experience spotting on and off for the first couple months after getting an IUD, implant, contraceptive shot, or after beginning birth control pills. The spotting will most likely stop after the first two or three months after starting on birth control. If it continues for longer than that, see your doctor.

Spotting after sex, also known as postcoital bleeding, is fairly uncommon and usually not serious.

Spotting after sex can be caused by vaginal dryness, infections, vaginal tearing, rough sex, uterine fibroids, or cervical polyps. While not as common, spotting after sex could also be a symptom of cervical cancer.

Minor spotting or bleeding often goes away within an hour or two after sex.

If there’s a chance you may be pregnant and you experience spotting before your next period, it may be a good idea to take a pregnancy test.

If you know you’re already pregnant and you experience any amount of spotting, you should see your doctor or OB-GYN right away. While not all bleeding is a sign of complications, your doctor will likely want to rule out potentially dangerous causes of spotting in pregnancy, including cervical polyps, ectopic pregnancy, or miscarriage.

For those taking birth control, spotting will usually go away over time, but if it becomes a nuisance or gets heavier, see your doctor. You may need to change your birth control prescription to a different type.

Contact a doctor if:

  • you experience bleeding after menopause
  • you observe vaginal bleeding in a child before the onset of menstruation
  • you have heavy vaginal bleeding that soaks a pad in less than an hour

You should also see a doctor if you have vaginal bleeding with additional symptoms, including:

If you have minor spotting or bleeding that goes away quickly, you probably don’t need to see a doctor, but if you’re concerned or worried or you experience spotting all the time, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor to share your concerns.