Pitocin (Oxytocin) - Injection

What Is Pitocin?

Pitocin (oxytocin) is an injectable medicine in the oxytocic agent drug class. An oxytocic agent is any drug that can speed up the process of childbirth. While oxytocin is a hormone that the body naturally produces, Pitocin has several uses during birth, pregnancy, or after delivery.

Production of oxytocin starts in the area of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the bridge between the nervous system and the endocrine system, the body system that creates all of the hormones that the body needs. Once oxytocin has been produced, it travels to another part of the brain that is very close to the hypothalamus, called the pituitary, where it's stored. After oxytocin is stored, it will stay there until it is ready to be released. As pregnancy progresses, the number of places in the uterus that oxytocin can bind to increases. When childbirth is about to occur, oxytocin binds to sites on the uterus, which triggers the start of contractions

Oxytocin is unique from other hormones in a specific way. Most hormones have what is known as a “negative feedback” form of balance. This means as the effect of a hormone increases, the original action causing the release of the hormone will have a decreased effect. Oxytocin is different; it has what is known as a “positive feedback” form of balance. The initial release of oxytocin will trigger contractions. As the head of the fetus pushes against the cervix, more oxytocin is released. The Pitocin that you may be given is identical to the oxytocin produced by the body. This is good for many reasons. Pitocin will further cause contractions if needed, which helps push the fetus out of the cervix.

Drug Facts

Generic Name: Oxytocin

Brand Name(s): Pitocin

Drug Availability: Prescription

Therapeutic Classification: Oxytocic hormones

Available Generically: Yes

Controlled Substance: N/A

Administration Route: Intravenous (IV) or Injection

Active Ingredient: Oxytocin

Dosage Form(s): Solution

What Is Pitocin Used For?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pitocin for use just before childbirth (antepartum) or after childbirth (postpartum): 

Antepartum

  • Get labor started (induction)
  • Reinforcement of labor
  • Extra (adjunct) therapy during abortion

Postpartum

How to Take Pitocin

Pitocin is not a drug that you can take at home. It should only be administered with the guidance of specialists and in specific situations. Pitocin can be used before or after birth, and the timing of Pitocin will vary. If it’s being used to cause contractions to help with childbirth or as an adjunctive (additional) therapy for an abortion, it will likely be given through an IV where it will enter your body over a relatively long period. If it’s used to help heavy bleeding after childbirth, it might be administered either through an IV or injected into one of your muscles.

Storage

Pitocin is stored between 20 to 25 degrees Celsius (C) (68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (F)).

Off-Label Uses

Apart from starting labor, one off-label use for oxytocin is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Oxytocin lessens the amount of mental stress a person may be experiencing, thus potentially helping more traditional treatments to be more effective.

In a small clinical trial, oxytocin was found to significantly lower the severity of PTSD and associated depression by the end of a third dose. Although oxytocin has not been found to treat PTSD alone, it has been shown to help improve the likelihood that standard PTSD treatment would work.

Another small clinical trial explored the use of oxytocin in schizophrenia, a disorder that greatly impacts how a person thinks. Researchers in this clinical trial found that when oxytocin was compared to a placebo (a medication that typically has little to no effect on its own), the people given oxytocin had improvements in some symptoms of schizophrenia.

How Long Does Pitocin Take to Work?

After IV administration of Pitocin, the uterus typically starts to respond almost immediately and the effects last for about one hour. After injection of Pitocin, the uterus typically starts to respond within three to five minutes with the effect lasting from between two and three hours.

What Are the Side Effects of Pitocin?

Pitocin will generally cause your contractions to start sooner and stronger than you might expect. This has the potential to impact you and the fetus.

This is not a complete list of side effects and others may occur. A healthcare provider can advise you on side effects. If you experience other effects, contact your healthcare provider. You may report side effects to the FDA at fda.gov/medwatch or 1-800-FDA-1088.

Common Side Effects

The following side effects have been reported in pregnant people with Pitocin:

  • Allergic reaction
  • Excessive bleeding in your pelvic area long after childbirth
  • Irregular (fast, slow, or uneven) heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Overhydration

Severe Side Effects

Although Pitocin is generally safe for a fetus, there is still a possibility of side effects due to the increased movement of the uterine contraction:

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Irregular (fast, slow, or uneven) heart rate
  • Permanent brain and nerve damage
  • Seizures

Side effects can also be caused by the use of Pitocin itself:

  • Relatively low Apgar score, a system used to gauge the health of a newborn baby immediately after birth
  • Yellowing of the baby’s eye or skin, which can indicate liver failure
  • Bleeding in the retina

Report Side Effects

Pitocin may cause other side effects. Call your healthcare provider if you have any unusual problems while taking this medication.

If you experience a serious side effect, you or your provider may send a report to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting Program or by phone (800-332-1088).

Dosage: How Much Pitocin Should I Take?

A trained healthcare provider will determine your dosage for this medication. You will be constantly monitored to ensure that you receive the correct dose. During labor, fetal heart rate will be monitored with a fetal heart monitor to evaluate any effects of Pitocin.

Modifications

High-dose and low-dose, institution-specific guidelines exist that your healthcare provider may follow if they decide that you need Pitocin. A healthcare provider will choose to give a high dose or a low dose. Regardless of your starting dose, the goal is the same. It is increased until either you start to experience normal labor progression or the strength of your contractions reaches a certain level.

Missed Dose

There isn’t really a way you can miss a dose of Pitocin since it should only be taken with the direct guidance of specialists. In the context of labor induction, Pitocin is given once your cervix has already started dilating and labor needs to be induced.

Overdose: What Happens If I Take Too Much Pitocin?

If a medication error occurs, and you are accidentally given too much Pitocin, complications can occur that are similar to Pitocin’s side effects. When given too much Pitocin, the most likely effect that will be noticed is too many (excessive) contractions which can cause additional side effects.

If too much medication has been given, your healthcare provider will stop the medication immediately and treat any symptoms.

Precautions

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Oxytocin can be very useful for helping labor. However, there are certain risks with using it. Oxytocin causes contractions of the uterus. In women who are unusually sensitive to its effects, these contractions may become too strong. In rare cases, this may lead to tearing of the uterus. Also, if contractions are too strong, the supply of blood and oxygen to the fetus may be decreased.

Oxytocin may cause jaundice and eye problems such as retinal hemorrhage in some newborn infants. If you have concerns about this, ask your doctor.

This medicine may cause a serious condition called water intoxication. Tell your doctor right away if you start having have confusion, drowsiness, headache, or seizures while you are receiving this medicine.

What Are Reasons I Shouldn’t Take Pitocin?

You should not be given Pitocin before birth (antepartum) if:

What Other Medications Interact With Pitocin?

Sometimes during labor, people in labor may experience low blood pressure. This may be treated with a vasoconstrictor (drug that tightens blood vessels and increases blood pressure). When Pitocin is given along with vasoconstrictors, very high blood pressure can occur.

Another drug class that may be administered during labor is anesthesia which can cause low blood pressure and an abnormal heart rate and rhythm when given with Pitocin. Your healthcare team will monitor you closely during this time.

What Medications Are Similar?

Pitocin is in the oxytocic agent drug class, and is commonly used to start (induce) labor. Other medicines that have been approved by the FDA that can induce labor are Cytotec and Cervidil. For Cytotec, labor induction is an off-label use. The other drug, Cervidil, is used for labor induction, but specifically, it is used to start or to continue dilating your cervix.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Pitocin used for?

    Pitocin is used to cause contractions around the time of labor with the purpose of speeding it up and lessening the difficulty.

  • What should be expected if I’m given Pitocin?

    If specialists determine that you are a good candidate for Pitocin, the activity of your uterus will have to be monitored to make sure your contractions don’t become too strong.

  • What scenario will cause Pitocin to be stopped, what will happen then?

    In cases of fetal distress where a fetus may be in danger, Pitocin administration will be stopped immediately. Another situation is if your uterus has too many contractions. In either case, if Pitocin has to be stopped in emergency situations, you may be moved to your side and be administered oxygen. Appropriate steps will then be taken by your healthcare provider.

  • What other drugs may be given during labor?

    In addition to Pitocin, other drugs used to induce labor and/or medications to manage your pain may be necessary.

  • Will labor still be uncomfortable if Pitocin is given?

    Yes. Pitocin will only help with reducing the length and difficulty of labor.

How Can I Stay Healthy While Taking Pitocin?

The most important thing that you can do after childbirth is to rest to the best of your ability. A newborn baby will have unexpected times when they will need to sleep, eat (breast milk or formula), for their diaper to be changed, along with other needs. As a caregiver, resting whenever it is possible is very important. A well-balanced diet and staying hydrated are also essential.

A newborn baby will need to be fed either breast milk or formula (avoid giving cow’s milk to children under 12 months old). Choosing to breastfeed is a personal choice and the decision to do so–or not–can be based on many different reasons. If breastfeeding, your breast milk will provide all of the necessary nutrients for your baby. Even if you choose not to breastfeed–or cannot for any reason–it’s important to have a balanced diet to maintain your energy.

It’s also important to find time for yourself–and your partner–as it will be a challenging transition with a newborn’s schedule, but having time to relax and connect is essential. Try to do your best to set up a care network (e.g., family members, postpartum doulas, babysitters, daycare options) and other resources (e.g., meal trains, household help) well before the arrival of your child.

Medical Disclaimer

Verywell Health's drug information is meant for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a healthcare provider. Consult your healthcare provider before taking any new medication(s). IBM Watson Micromedex provides some of the drug content, as indicated on the page.

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