Some people may experience health issues during pregnancy, which could lead to complications if they do not receive treatment. Certain behavioral factors, medical conditions, and environmental factors can raise a person’s chance of developing complications during their pregnancy.
In this article, we look at what can increase the chance of developing complications during pregnancy.
We also list possible complications, treatment options, and prevention and self-care tips to optimize health and well-being during pregnancy.
The body produces around 20–30% extra blood during pregnancy. This means the body needs extra iron to make hemoglobin, which allows red blood cells to transport oxygen to cells. People may lack enough iron during the second and third trimesters.
If people do not have enough iron, they can develop anemia. Symptoms of anemia include:
- feeling tired
- feeling faint
- shortness of breath
- rapid heartbeat
Mild anemia is quite common in pregnancy, but it requires treatment. Without treatment, anemia may cause preterm birth and low birth weight.
A doctor may recommend taking prenatal vitamins to prevent anemia, or an iron supplement.
People who did not previously have diabetes can develop it during pregnancy. This is known as “gestational diabetes.” Gestational diabetes prevents the body from breaking down sugar correctly.
As there are no external symptoms, doctors need to test for gestational diabetes. Doctors will test for the condition between 24–28 weeks of pregnancy.
Doctors may test in the first trimester if people have risk factors such as being overweight or if they had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy.
A healthy diet and regular exercise can help to control gestational diabetes.
Some people may need medication or insulin to help control blood sugar.
If people have poorly controlled high blood pressure before or during pregnancy, it can cause complications.
The following are examples of blood pressure disorders that can occur during pregnancy:
- Gestational hypertension: Gestational hypertension occurs if someone with previously normal blood pressure develops high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy, which returns to normal within 12 weeks of delivery.
- Chronic hypertension: This is high blood pressure that began before a person’s 20th week of pregnancy.
- Preeclampsia: This is a new onset increase in blood pressure that occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy with new symptoms.
With gestational hypertension, the only abnormality a person experiences is their blood pressure. However, with preeclampsia, a person will experience high blood pressure alongside increased levels of protein in the urine. They may also experience sudden and severe peripheral edema, which is swelling of the hands, face, feet, and ankles.
People usually experience no other symptoms apart from high blood pressure. However, symptoms can include:
- persistent headache that does not respond to painkillers
- blurred vision
- flashing lights
- partial loss of vision or a blind spot
Gestational hypertension does not usually cause any harm, but it does need monitoring. Severe high blood pressure could cause small birth size, decreased amniotic fluid, increased risk of preeclampsia, and medical reasons for an early delivery.
Doctors will monitor blood pressure and may use medications to control high blood pressure.
Symptoms of preeclampsia include:
- changes in vision
- severe headache
- pain underneath the ribs
- difficulty breathing
Doctors will routinely check for high blood pressure during prenatal visits. If a person has high blood pressure, a doctor will then check kidney and liver function for preeclampsia.
If preeclampsia develops near term, at 37–40 weeks of pregnancy, doctors will induce labor to treat preeclampsia.
If doctors cannot deliver the baby because it is too early, they will closely monitor the condition and prescribe bed rest and medications to help lower blood pressure.
HELLP syndrome is a rare but serious complication of hypertensive disorders during pregnancy. It usually occurs in the third trimester (the last 3 months).
HELLP stands for:
- Hemolysis: This is when the red blood cells break down.
- Elevated liver enzymes: If a person has high levels of liver enzymes, it indicates a problem with the liver.
- Low platelet count: A low platelet count can result in severe bleeding.
HELLP can lead to:
- bleeding and clotting problems
- pulmonary edema (buildup of fluid in the lungs)
- kidney failure
- liver failure
- placental abruption (the placenta separates from the uterus wall)
A person should seek emergency medical help if they experience:
- blurred vision
- chest pain
- pain in the upper right stomach
- pain in the middle of the stomach
Although rare, a person can experience nosebleeds and seizures, or convulsions.
Treatment can involve medication to help control a person’s blood pressure. They may also require a blood transfusion.
Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) is persistent and severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. HG can cause weight loss and dehydration.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, people may experience HG for the whole of their pregnancy, or it may improve by 20 weeks of pregnancy. Symptoms of HG include severe and persistent nausea and vomiting. A person may also experience a loss of prepregnancy weight by 5% or more.
Treatment can help to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Eating a diet of bland foods and fluids may help. Some people may need medications to control nausea, or intravenous fluids and nutrients.
Some infections can occur during pregnancy and delivery. During pregnancy, they can affect the health of the fetus.
Examples of some infections that can affect pregnancy include:
- sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- bacterial vaginosis
- yeast infections
- group B strep
- hepatitis B
- parvovirus B19
Symptoms vary for different infections, but signs of infection can include:
- gray or white vaginal discharge, with an unpleasant smell
- fever and chills
- body aches
- vomiting or diarrhea
- flu-like symptoms
Testing during pregnancy for infections can help to identify and treat them quickly. Frequent hand washing can also help to prevent picking up infections.
Treatment depends on the type of infection but may include:
- hepatitis B vaccine for baby at birth
- flu shot
Some people may experience mental health conditions during pregnancy. These can include depression and anxiety. Additionally, the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) notes that eating disorders may worsen during pregnancy.
People may have depression if they have these symptoms for more than
- low or sad mood
- loss of interest in enjoyable activities
- change in energy, appetite, or sleep
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- feeling shame, guilt, or worthlessness
- thoughts that life is not worth living
People can speak with a doctor about treatment, which could include therapy, support groups, and medication.
Postpartum depression is a serious mental health condition that can occur after delivery.
According to the OWH, many people experience feelings of sadness and emptiness a few days after giving birth. This typically resolves between 3–5 days.
However, if these feelings do not resolve and a person feels sad, empty, or helpless for more than 2 weeks, they may be experiencing postpartum depression.
It is vital that a person tells a healthcare professional if they suspect they are experiencing postpartum depression. Treatment includes therapy and medication.
The following disorders can affect the placenta during pregnancy:
- Placental abruption: Placental abruption occurs when the placenta becomes separated from the uterine wall before delivery. This means that the fetus may not receive enough oxygen. Symptoms can include bleeding, cramping, abdominal pain, and uterine tenderness.
- Placenta previa: This is when the placenta covers all or part of the cervix. There are usually no symptoms, and it often resolves by the third trimester. However, this condition needs monitoring, as cramping and vaginal bleeding can be an emergency.
- Placental insufficiency: This occurs when the placenta does not function as it should and is unable to deliver nutrition to the fetus.
- Placental infarcts: This occurs when there are areas of dead tissue within the placenta.
- Placenta accreta: This is when the placenta and blood vessels attach and grow into the wall of the uterus.
Treatment will depend on which disorder a person is experiencing. However, for placenta previa and placental abruption, a person may be monitored in the hospital or advised to limit their physical activity.
For severe cases of placental abruption, a person may require medical attention, and doctors may deliver the baby early. If placental abruption is severe, it means that more than half of the placenta has become separated.
If placenta previa causes heavy bleeding, a person may need to stay in the hospital. They will need a cesarean delivery, usually 2–4 weeks before the due date.
Pregnancy loss is the unexpected loss of the fetus before term. Pregnancy loss can occur for many reasons.
Symptoms of pregnancy loss include:
- fluid or tissue from the vagina
- cramping in the lower abdomen
- lower back pain
- vaginal bleeding or spotting
Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy does not always indicate a pregnancy loss. A person will still need to contact their healthcare professional if they have any vaginal bleeding.
The type of medical care a person will receive for pregnancy loss will depend on the symptoms and the person’s stage in the pregnancy.
Some people may require medication or surgery to remove pregnancy tissue from the uterus, to prevent excessive bleeding or infection.
Some people may also require emotional support for pregnancy loss.
The Office on Women’s Health provides a helpline to support anyone who has experienced pregnancy loss. The number to call is 800-994-9662, and help is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m Eastern Standard Time.
Additionally, pregnancy loss can occur for many reasons, such as genetic abnormalities in the fetus and conditions that affect the cervix or uterus. If the pregnancy loss occurred due to a health condition, a person may require treatment for the cause.
Preterm labor happens when people go into labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm labor can increase the chance of health problems in the baby, as they are not yet fully developed.
Symptoms of preterm labor include:
- increase of vaginal discharge
- pressure in the pelvic area
- back pain that radiates to the abdomen
Bed rest and medications may help prevent labor from progressing. If doctors cannot prevent labor, a person may have an early delivery.
- pain or burning sensation when urinating
- frequent urge to urinate
- pressure in lower abdomen
- cloudy, unpleasant-smelling urine
- back pain
A doctor can test a urine sample to check for a UTI. Antibiotics can usually treat a UTI within
The following are some complications a person may experience during labor:
If a fetus is breech, it means they are facing feet or buttocks first before delivery. A doctor may be able to feel a pregnant person’s abdomen to check which way a fetus is facing or use an ultrasound.
A doctor may use a technique called external cephalic version (ECV) to turn the fetus around manually. Doctors apply pressure to the abdomen to turn the fetus. If ECV is not effective, a person may need a cesarean delivery.
Low birth weight
If a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces, they have a low birth weight. Babies can be healthy with a low birth weight, but some may have health problems.
Some babies with low birth weight may need monitoring in the hospital, feeding tubes, or treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Existing health conditions can increase the chance of complications during pregnancy, including:
|Health condition||Effect on pregnancy|
|Depression||If a person has depression before pregnancy, it may increase the chance of postpartum depression.|
|Diabetes||Having high blood glucose levels may harm the fetus and increase the chance of long-term diabetes complications.|
|Eating disorders||Eating disorders can lead to:|
• congenital disabilities
• premature birth
• postpartum depression
|Epilepsy||Seizures may increase the chance of pregnancy loss and stillbirth.|
|Overweight and obesity||Having overweight or obesity can increase the chance of preeclampsia and preterm delivery.|
|Thyroid disease||Hyperthyroidism may cause heart failure and low weight gain of the fetus.|
|Uterine fibroids||Uterine fibroids can rarely lead to pregnancy loss.|
They may sometimes lead to preterm delivery or breech birth.
|High blood pressure||High blood pressure may lead to:|
• placental abruption
• preterm birth
• low birth weight
The following health conditions can also increase the chance of complications:
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- heart disease
- kidney disease
- autoimmune disease
- thyroid disease
- Zika infection
Other factors which can increase the chance of complications include:
- teenage pregnancy
- first-time pregnancy over the age of 35
- drinking alcohol during pregnancy
- smoking during pregnancy
- smoking cannabis or taking illegal drugs during pregnancy
People will need to contact a doctor if they experience any unusual symptoms during pregnancy, including:
- any vaginal bleeding or spotting
- shortness of breath
- abdominal pain or cramping
- feeling faint or dizzy
- severe nausea or vomiting
- unusual vaginal discharge
- blurred vision
- swelling in hands or face
People may be able to prevent some pregnancy complications with the following:
- healthy diet
- regular exercise
- managing existing health conditions
- attending all prenatal checkups
- avoiding smoking, alcohol, and illegal drug use
- washing hands frequently to prevent certain infections
- maintaining a healthy weight
Self-care tips during pregnancy include:
- taking breaks to sit down and rest
- regular, low-impact exercise, such as walking and swimming
- taking time outdoors in the fresh air
- making time for relaxing activities
- asking for and accepting help with everyday tasks
- prepacking a hospital bag in preparation
This article does not contain an exhaustive list of all complications that can occur during pregnancy.
Some people may experience complications during pregnancy. Early diagnosis and treatment can help to prevent complications.
Attending all prenatal care checkups and keeping healthcare professionals up to date with symptoms can help to lower the risk of pregnancy complications.
It is important to note that if a person has a condition that can increase the likelihood of experiencing a pregnancy complication, this does not mean that they should not be pregnant. Many health conditions, when well-managed, do not play a significant role in pregnancy complications.
A person who has a health condition that may affect their chance of experiencing pregnancy complications can talk with a doctor before conceiving. Their doctor will help ensure a person is in optimal health and advise them about what to expect during the pregnancy.
Throughout the pregnancy, they may require additional monitoring and testing.