Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that develop on a woman’s ovary. They are very common and usually harmless. However, in rare cases, some types of ovarian cysts can cause severe complications that may be life-threatening.
What are ovarian cysts?
Ovarian cysts form in or on a woman’s ovaries as fluid accumulates in the follicles or corpus luteum. There are several different types of ovarian cysts:
- Follicular cysts – These form when the follicle fails to rupture and release the egg during ovulation.
- Corpus luteum cysts – These occur when the corpus luteum, which forms after an egg is released, does not dissolve as expected.
- Dermoid cysts – These abnormal cysts contain tissue such as hair, teeth, bone and skin glands.
- Cystadenomas – These cysts develop from ovarian tissue and can become large.
- Endometriomas – These cysts form when endometrial tissue grows abnormally on the ovaries.
Ovarian cysts are very common, especially among women of reproductive age. Many women develop harmless follicular or corpus luteum cysts each month. Larger or more complex cysts are less common.
Can ovarian cysts be life-threatening?
Most ovarian cysts do not cause any symptoms and go away on their own within a few months. However, some larger cysts can cause pelvic pain, bloating, frequent urination, abnormal menstrual bleeding, pain during sex or fertility issues. Even these larger cysts typically aren’t dangerous.
In rare cases, certain types of ovarian cysts can become severely problematic and even cause life-threatening complications. The main potentially life-threatening complications include:
- Rupture – If a large cyst ruptures, it can cause severe internal bleeding. Seek emergency care if you have sudden, severe abdominal pain, fainting, dizziness or shoulder pain after a cyst rupture.
- Torsion – A large cyst can cause the ovary to twist on itself, cutting off blood flow (ovarian torsion). This causes sudden, severe pain with nausea and vomiting.
- Cancer – A small number of cysts, especially endometriomas and cystadenomas, can develop into ovarian cancer over time. Seek medical advice if a cyst persists for several cycles.
- Infection – An infected cyst (tubo-ovarian abscess) causes fever, pain, nausea and vomiting. It can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Dermoid cysts and other abnormal ovarian cysts also have a small risk of causing toxicity or cancer in some cases. Talk to your doctor right away if you develop any signs of an infected cyst, ruptured cyst, ovarian torsion or persistent ovarian cyst.
What types of ovarian cysts can become dangerous?
Most cases of life-threatening complications from ovarian cysts involve one of these cyst types:
- Dermoid cysts – These abnormal cysts can sometimes twist or rupture and cause toxicity. They also have a small risk of cancer.
- Cystadenomas – These large cysts have a risk of rupture, torsion and cancer if allowed to persist.
- Endometriomas – Cysts related to endometriosis can sometimes rupture or rarely become cancerous.
- Complex cysts – Any large or complex ovarian cyst is more prone to complications like rupture, torsion or cancer.
Even though serious complications are rare, it’s important to monitor complex or persistent ovarian cysts through regular ultrasound imaging and doctor’s visits. This allows early detection of any dangerous changes in an ovarian cyst.
What complications can directly cause death?
There are two main ways an ovarian cyst can directly cause death:
- Rupture leading to bleeding out – If a large cyst ruptures, it can cause life-threatening bleeding in the abdomen, pelvis and vagina. If the bleeding isn’t stopped quickly, it’s possible for a woman to bleed out and die.
- Cancer – In very rare cases, an ovarian cyst can undergo cancerous changes and develop into an ovarian cancer tumor. If allowed to grow and spread unchecked, ovarian cancer can ultimately lead to death.
Thankfully, death from a ruptured ovarian cyst or undiagnosed ovarian cancer is extremely rare. Being aware of the key warning signs and seeking prompt medical care greatly reduces the risks.
Can ovarian cysts cause death during pregnancy?
Ovarian cysts during pregnancy can rarely be complicated by dangerous torsion or rupture that threatens the life of both the mother and baby. Some key points:
- Corpus luteum cysts are very common during early pregnancy, but don’t usually cause issues.
- Cysts that developed before pregnancy may grow larger due to hormones.
- Torsion risk is higher as the cyst is displaced by the expanding uterus.
- Rupture risks maternal hemorrhage and potential miscarriage.
- Early ultrasound helps detect worrisome cysts for close monitoring.
With ultrasound monitoring and prompt medical care if complications occur, death from an ovarian cyst during pregnancy is extremely unlikely. Still, pregnant women should be aware of the key warning signs of cyst rupture or torsion.
Warning signs of a dangerous ovarian cyst
Seeking prompt medical treatment is critically important if an ovarian cyst shows signs of becoming complicated. Here are some red flags to watch out for:
- Sudden, severe abdominal or pelvic pain
- Pain with vomiting or fainting
- Fever, chills, nausea
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Persistent cyst over 2-3 menstrual cycles
- Cyst is larger than 5-10 cm on imaging
- Complex cyst characteristics on ultrasound
- Rapid cyst growth or change
Any of these warning signs warrants urgent medical evaluation to assess you for cyst complications like rupture, torsion or cancer. Listen to your body and seek help quickly at the first hint of trouble.
Can ovarian cysts be cancerous?
Most ovarian cysts are benign (non-cancerous) and don’t increase ovarian cancer risk at all. However, some types do have a small chance of being or becoming cancerous:
- Cystadenomas – Can develop into cystadenocarcinomas in rare cases.
- Dermoid cysts – May very rarely undergo malignant transformation.
- Endometriomas – Associated with slightly increased ovarian cancer risk.
- Complex cysts – Have a higher cancer risk compared to simple cysts.
The vast majority of even these types of cysts are benign. But it’s important to continue monitoring any persistent or complex cyst with your doctor to ensure no cancerous changes develop.
Can ruptured cysts come back?
It’s possible for new cysts to develop after a previous cyst rupture. However, the ruptured cyst itself does not come back. Key facts:
- A ruptured cyst spills its contents into the pelvis and then collapses.
- A new cyst can form in that same location on the ovary later on.
- Women with PCOS are at increased risk for recurring cysts.
- See your gynecologist if new cysts appear after a rupture.
Make sure to follow up with your doctor for ultrasound monitoring after a cyst rupture to ensure no new worrisome cysts are forming.
How are dangerous ovarian cysts treated?
Doctors use several approaches to treat severe or persistent ovarian cysts, depending on the risks:
- Watchful waiting – For mild symptoms or small cysts that may resolve on their own.
- Medications – Birth control pills or other hormones may help prevent recurrent cysts.
- Surgery – Cystectomy, oophorectomy or hysterectomy for large, recurrent or suspicious cysts.
- Drainage – Rarely done for large cysts at risk of torsion or rupture.
In cases of cyst rupture, ovarian torsion or other emergencies, urgent surgery may be needed to stop bleeding and prevent fatal complications. This is very rare.
What are the chances an ovarian cyst could kill you?
The chances of dying from a ovarian cyst are extremely low, since most cysts are small and resolve without any complications. Exact statistics are limited, but ovarian cyst mortality risk is believed to be:
- Less than 1 in 50,000 for cyst rupture leading to death from blood loss
- Around 1 in 100,000 for undiagnosed ovarian cancer causing death
Overall, as long as you receive good routine gynecologic care and appropriate monitoring of any complex or persistent ovarian cysts, your risk of dying from an ovarian cyst is negligible.
Can a ruptured ovarian cyst kill you?
It’s extremely unlikely for a ruptured ovarian cyst to directly cause death, but it can become life-threatening in some rare cases. Here’s what you need to know:
- Most cyst ruptures cause only mild to moderate pain and abdominal swelling.
- In rare cases, significant bleeding into the abdomen can occur.
- Death is only a risk if bleeding is excessive and not stopped with prompt surgery.
- Seek emergency care right away for severe rupture pain or lightheadedness.
As long as you get medical help quickly, a ruptured cyst is very unlikely to be fatal. But it’s still crucial to be aware of the danger signs and act fast if you experience sudden severe ovarian cyst rupture pain.
While nearly all ovarian cysts are benign and resolve without complication, a small number can become problematic and raise life-threatening risks. Seek prompt medical care if you develop any signs of cyst rupture, ovarian torsion, uncontrolled bleeding, infection or ovarian cancer.
As long as you remain under the care of your gynecologist and report any new or worsening ovarian cyst symptoms immediately, your risks of dying from an ovarian cyst are extremely low.