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Vomiting is a normal symptom of pregnancy that people typically refer to as morning sickness. Occasionally, there are other causes of vomiting that require medical attention.
However, not all vomiting and nausea during pregnancy are due to morning sickness. In some cases, more serious underlying causes are to blame.
Vomiting in pregnancy is normal. People reportedly described the condition, also known as NVP (nausea and vomiting in pregnancy), as early as 2000 BCE.
Although there is no clear reason for NVP, one theory is that it is due to hormonal changes that a women undergoes during pregnancy.
Despite being commonly known as morning sickness, NVP can happen at any time of the day or night. These symptoms are often limited to the first trimester, but they can occasionally extend throughout the pregnancy, including in the third trimester.
Standard morning sickness usually starts before 9 weeks of pregnancy. Women typically feel nauseated for a short time each day and may vomit once or twice a day.
Hyperemesis gravidarum affects about 3 in 100 pregnancies and causes extreme and excessive vomiting and nausea. Whereas morning sickness is manageable, hyperemesis gravidarum is much more severe. Symptoms include:
- vomiting more than three to four times a day
- feeling nauseated almost constantly
- losing a substantial amount of prepregnancy body weight
Although the cause of morning sickness is not fully understood, certain risk factors increase the likelihood of a person experiencing more severe symptoms:
- having a multiple pregnancy, i.e., twins or triplets
- having had a previous pregnancy with nausea and vomiting
- having a family history of severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy
- having a personal history of motion sickness or migraine
- being pregnant with a female fetus
NVP during pregnancy can also occur due to certain medical conditions, including:
- an ulcer
- food-related illness
- thyroid disease
- gallbladder disease
- certain chemicals
Pregnant women are at higher risk than others of food-related illnesses because their immune system is weaker. In addition to this, the fetus’s immune system is not yet strong enough to fight the germs.
Along with nausea and vomiting, foodborne illness can cause the following symptoms:
To minimize their risk of food poisoning, pregnant women should avoid certain food products, including:
- unwashed fruits and vegetables
- raw or undercooked eggs
- unpasteurized milk
- unpasteurized cheese
- raw fish
It is advisable to research a full list of foods to avoid to limit the risks of food-related illness as much as possible. Learn more about food poisoning here.
Both the cause and the severity of NVP usually determine the treatment. It can be as simple as making a few dietary amendments or as serious as receiving nutrients and fluid intravenously at the hospital.
Some medical treatments include:
- Vitamin B-6 and doxylamine: Both of these are safe to take individually or together during pregnancy, as they have no harmful effects on the fetus.
- Antiemetic drugs: These drugs prevent vomiting, and a doctor may prescribe them if the above combination does not work.
It is important to seek medical advice before trying the following treatments, which some say can help relieve NVP:
- Acupuncture: This form of alternative medicine involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the skin. It is best to choose a practitioner who has trained to work with pregnant women.
- Acupressure and acustimulation: These techniques involve putting pressure on or stimulating certain points of the body, called pressure points, to help prevent nausea.
Pregnant women can take certain steps — mostly dietary or lifestyle ones — to reduce the chance of vomiting. These include:
- eating small meals several times a day rather than three big meals
- avoiding smells that set off the nausea
- taking prenatal vitamins
- sipping on water or ginger ale
- drinking fluids often
- consuming ginger or using supplements
- eating plain crackers or dry toast
Normal morning sickness is nothing to worry about and does not warrant a visit to the doctor.
However, severe morning sickness could be hyperemesis gravidarum. If hyperemesis gravidarum seems likely, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible, as it can have serious complications and require medical treatment.
Pregnant women should see a doctor if any of the following symptoms occur:
- weight loss of more than 2 pounds
- inability to keep foods and fluids down
- being tired or confused
- blood in the vomit
Sickness during pregnancy usually does not harm either the pregnant woman or the developing fetus.
Medical treatment is only necessary when the cause is something else, such as food poisoning or hyperemesis gravidarum.
Anyone with concerns about vomiting during pregnancy should see a doctor to rule out causes other than morning sickness.