Pregnancy health problems: what’s common, what’s not

Many women go through physical discomforts in pregnancy – constipation, backache, increased need to urinate, indigestion, leg cramps, varicose veins, haemorrhoids and nosebleeds.

These pregnancy health problems are usually mild, but they sometimes need medical attention. It’s always a good idea to talk about these kinds of problems with your doctor or midwife.

When to get help for pregnancy health problems

There are some physical and emotional changes that can point to less common and more serious problems in pregnancy. If you have any of the symptoms or feelings below, call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital as soon as possible.

Your emotional wellbeing
Call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital if you’re:

  • feeling very depressed or anxious or if you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
  • finding it difficult to cope with everyday activities like showering and eating
  • having serious problems in your relationship
  • experiencing family violence.

Your tummy or ‘bump’
Call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital if you:

  • have severe discomfort, pain or cramping in your stomach or back
  • get a physical blow or trauma to your tummy area – for example, from a fall, car accident or family violence
  • think your baby is moving less or differently from what you’ve felt before, especially later in pregnancy. Check with your midwife or doctor at your antenatal appointments about how much baby movement to expect.

Your bladder or vagina
Call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital if you:

  • are bleeding, leaking fluid or having a lot of discharge (that is, more than normal) from your vagina
  • feel any discomfort, pain, frequency or burning when you urinate.

Your head
Call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital if you:

  • are getting severe or long-lasting headaches
  • feel quite dizzy
  • have problems seeing, or have any changes to your vision, like blurred vision or lights flashing in front of your eyes.

Your legs, toes, fingers, hands and skin
Call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital if you have:

  • severe swelling in your face, hands or feet, which comes on suddenly and rapidly
  • severe swelling and pain in your legs
  • severe skin itching, including itchy hands and feet.

Other
Call your doctor, midwife or maternity hospital if you:

  • have persistent nausea and vomiting, and can’t eat and drink without vomiting
  • have a fever or chills.

You might feel that something ‘just isn’t right’, even if you don’t have any of the symptoms above. It’s important that you get checked out by your health professional, so that you can get treatment or help as soon as possible – or be told that everything is OK. If you can’t reach your own doctor, midwife or maternity hospital by phone, go to a GP clinic or the nearest public maternity hospital.

Call an ambulance by phoning 000 if you think it’s an emergency and you’re very concerned about your health or your baby’s, or if you go into labour but you’re not close to your due date.

If you’re getting closer to your due date, you can read about signs that labour might start soon in our article on 33 weeks pregnant.

Past pregnancy health problems

You might be more likely to develop a health problem in pregnancy if you:

  • had a health problem or complication with a previous pregnancy
  • have a medical condition
  • have a family history of a condition that might cause problems in pregnancy.

If this sounds like you, tell your doctor or midwife at your early antenatal appointments. Your doctor or midwife will keep a closer eye on you and your baby, and offer treatment and support during your pregnancy if you need it.

Reducing the risk of pregnancy health problems

There’s no way to stop some pregnancy health problems and complications from happening.

But you can reduce your chance of having pregnancy health complications – or stop them from getting worse – by going to your antenatal appointments and telling your doctor or midwife if you have any of the symptoms listed above.

The earlier you tell your health professional about symptoms, the better.

If you do have a pregnancy health problem, your midwife or doctor can check on you and/or give you options for treatment.

Healthy pregnancy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle can also help reduce the likelihood that you’ll have some pregnancy health problems.

Food
Healthy eating in pregnancy can improve your health and wellbeing. It’s also important for your baby’s growth and development.

You might have sudden cravings for foods you don’t usually eat. This is probably because of hormonal changes during pregnancy. It’s OK to indulge every now and then, as long as your overall diet is healthy and balanced.

Physical activity
Regular, gentle to moderate physical activity in pregnancy can improve your mood, fitness and sleep, boost energy and ease back pain.

You could try walking, swimming or yoga with a pregnancy yoga teacher. But check with your doctor or midwife about your plans for exercise and physical activity in pregnancy.

Exercising your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles will help to prevent urinary problems like incontinence later in pregnancy and after birth.

Smoking, alcohol and other drugs and medications
Don’t smoke in pregnancy. Stay away from other people when they smoke so you don’t breathe their second-hand smoke. If you smoke, get help to quit by calling Quitline on 137 848.

Don’t drink alcohol in pregnancy. Alcohol crosses the placenta and can lead to serious health problems in babies.

Check with your doctor or midwife that any medicines or drugs you’re taking are safe for your baby. This includes prescribed medicines, vitamin or herbal supplements and medicines from chemists and supermarkets.

Don’t use recreational or illicit medicines or drugs. If you do use these, tell your doctor or midwife early in pregnancy and ask for help to quit.

Your emotional health
Your emotional health is just as important as your physical health.

It’s common for women to experience emotional changes during pregnancy. This is because of the big physical and practical changes that happen in pregnancy.

But emotional changes that last longer than two weeks can be a sign of depression. If you’re experiencing signs of depression, it’s important to talk to your doctor, GP or midwife.

And if you’re worried about becoming a parent or you’re having problems in your relationship, including family violence, it’s a good idea for you to talk about this at your antenatal appointments. Your GP or midwife can let you know where to get support if you need it.

Sleep
The safest sleeping position during pregnancy is on your side, because this position reduces the risk of stillbirth. This is especially important in the third trimester of pregnancy. To sleep comfortably on your side, try putting a pillow between your legs and behind your back. This can ease and prevent back pain.

While sleeping on either side is good, it’s a good idea to sleep on your left side when you can. Sleeping on your left side can increase the flow of blood and nutrients to your baby.

Daily health and hygiene
Looking after your teeth before and during pregnancy is important because tooth decay and gum disease can increase the risk of premature birth, low birth weight and early childhood dental decay. You can look after your teeth by drinking tap water every day, brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day using a soft toothbrush, and using dental floss every day. And it’s good to see your dentist at least once a year.

Health professionals recommend that you get the influenza vaccine if you’re pregnant. It can be given at any stage of pregnancy and helps to protect you and your baby. A whooping cough booster is recommended and free for pregnant women in their third trimester. Your doctor or midwife can tell you more about vaccines during pregnancy.

Washing your hands regularly, especially after going to the toilet and before preparing food, is part of good hygiene. It can help to prevent you from catching or spreading illness and infection.

Car safety
Wear a seatbelt in the car. The seat belt should be positioned with one strap ‘above your bump’ and the other ‘below your bump’.

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