Pregnancy Complications

Symptoms, Problems, Diagnosis, Treatment

During pregnancy, there are many changes going on in your body. Many of them are minor annoyances, but some can be an indicator of a pregnancy complication. Some complications are very serious and can lead to loss of the baby and/or future fertility, and even death for the mother. So take symptoms seriously: Go to every prenatal visit, have the tests and screenings your health care provider recommends, and always call your provider if you have any questions or concerns.

When to Call Your Doctor

If in doubt about any pregnancy symptom, it's always best to call your doctor or midwife for advice. Always call for these symptoms (or go to the emergency room if it is after hours and you cannot reach your health care provider):

  • Vaginal bleeding or spotting
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain that is sharp, intense, occurs on one side of the body only, or doesn't subside with movement
  • Contractions that are less than 10 minutes apart, if you are fewer than 37 weeks along
  • A gush of fluid (even if you think it could be urine, get it checked)
  • Marked decrease in baby's movements
  • Sudden or severe headaches
  • Swelling that comes on suddenly or doesn't go away with rest
  • Fever of 100 degrees F or higher
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fainting or dizziness

Ectopic Pregnancy

In an ectopic pregnancy, the fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube.

Symptoms: Slight, irregular vaginal bleeding that often is brownish; pain in the lower abdomen, often on one side (can be followed by severe pelvic pain); shoulder pain; faintness or dizziness; nausea or vomiting.

Consequences: An embryo implanted in a fallopian tube can burst the tube and lead to a life-and-death emergency.

Diagnosis: Blood tests; vaginal or abdominal ultrasound exam; laparoscopy (surgery to view the abdominal organs directly with a viewing instrument).

Treatment: Because the embryo of an ectopic pregnancy cannot survive, it is removed surgically; or the woman is treated with a cancer drug, methotrexate, which dissolves the pregnancy.

Gestational Diabetes

Some pregnant women have a problem processing glucose, which results in high blood sugar.

Symptoms: Extreme thirst, hunger, or fatigue (but usually no symptoms). Also, a blood sugar value of 140 mg/DL or greater on a diabetes test.

Consequences: Gestational diabetes can lead to preterm labor or a high birth-weight baby, which can complicate delivery. Some babies have trouble breathing when they are born or develop jaundice.

Diagnosis: Blood test one hour after drinking a glucose drink. All pregnant women are screened for gestational diabetes toward the end of the second trimester.

Treatment: Most women can control their blood sugar levels with diet and exercise. Diet and blood sugar monitoring is the number one method of treatment. Some women with gestational diabetes or women who had diabetes before pregnancy need shots of insulin.

Hepatitis B

This viral infection causes inflammation of the liver.

Symptoms: Flu-like symptoms like mild fever, headache, muscle aches and tiredness; loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; dark-colored urine and pale bowel movements; stomach pain; skin and whites of eyes turning yellow or jaundice; liver problems. Also often no symptoms.

Consequences: Hepatitis B can be passed on to the baby and have severe consequences for their health. Hepatitis infection can also increase the risk of preterm labor.

Diagnosis: Blood test (done as a routine screening for all pregnant women).

Treatment: Within 12 hours of birth, your baby will need a shot called HBIG, along with the first hepatitis B shot.

HIV or Another STD

A sexually transmitted infection, including HIV, that is present before or acquired during pregnancy requires treatment.

Symptoms: Often no symptoms, but can include: small blisters or warts in the genital area; fever; fatigue; aches and pains; vaginal discharge especially if it is yellowish, bloody, green, gray, or thick and white like cottage cheese, or with a strong odor; burning or pain when urinating; itching around genital area; itching or burning in vagina; pain in legs or buttocks; pain during sex; frequent yeast infections; skin rash

Consequences: HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases can be passed on to the baby. There is an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and pre-term delivery for many STDs.

Diagnosis: Blood test. Physical exam to look for symptoms in the throat, anus, or genital area. Visual exam to inspect skin for rashes, growths or sores, especially the area around the genitals. Pelvic exam to look at the inside of the vagina (birth canal) and cervix (opening to the uterus, or womb) and to feel internal organs for any inflammation or growths. Taking a sample of fluid or tissue from the vaginal, anal or genital area to look for the presence of virus.

Treatment: Antiviral drugs; possible cesarean delivery.

Listeriosis

Listeriosis is an infection from the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, which can be found in soft cheeses and ready-to-eat deli meats.

Symptoms: Flu-like illness with fever, muscle aches, chills, and sometimes diarrhea or nausea that can progress to severe headache and stiff neck.

Consequences: When a pregnant women contracts listeriosis, her baby is at a higher risk of infection, miscarriage, stillbirth, and pre-term delivery.

Diagnosis: Blood test.

Treatment: Antibiotics can often prevent infection in the baby.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection which can be contracted from cat feces or soil, or from eating raw or undercooked meat that contains the parasite.

Symptoms: Mild flu-like symptoms, or possibly no symptoms.

Consequences: Toxoplasmosis can be passed on to the baby, and if this happens early in pregnancy, cause serious birth defects. Infection later in pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as babies being born with brain damage.

Diagnosis: Blood test. If the mother is infected, the fetus can be tested through amniocentesis (a test on the fluid around the baby, to diagnose certain birth defects) and ultrasound.

Treatment: If fetus not yet infected, mother can be given an antibiotic, spiramycin (to help reduce severity of symptoms in the newborn). If the fetus is suspected of being infected, the mother can be given two medications, pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. Infected babies are treated at birth and through the first year of life with these medications.

Urinary Tract Infection

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are very common in pregnancy, but they respond well to treatment.

Symptoms: Pain or burning when urinating; pain in lower pelvis, lower back, stomach or side; shaking, chills; fever; sweats; nausea, vomiting; frequent or uncontrollable urge to urinate; strong-smelling urine; change in amount of urine; blood or pus in urine; pain during sex.

Consequences: If left untreated, a UTI can travel to the kidneys, which can cause premature labor.

Diagnosis: Urine test.

Treatment: Antibiotics, usually 3- to 7-day course of amoxicillin, nitrofurantoin, or cephalosporin.

Placenta Previa

In placenta previa, the placenta covers part or all of the cervix and can cause severe bleeding, usually toward the end of the second trimester or later.

Symptoms: Painless vaginal bleeding during the second or third trimester. In many cases, no symptoms.

Consequences: Placenta previa often leads to pre-term delivery and can also cause intrauterine growth restriction.

Diagnosis: An ultrasound exam.

Treatment: If diagnosed after the 20th week of pregnancy, but with no bleeding, reduce activity level and increase bed rest. If bleeding is heavy, requires hospitalization until mother and baby are stable. If the bleeding stops or is light, requires continued bed rest until baby is ready for delivery. If bleeding doesn't stop or if pre-term labor starts, baby will be delivered by cesarean.

Placental Abruption

Placental abruption is a condition in which the placenta separates from the uterine wall before delivery.

Symptoms: Vaginal bleeding during the second half of pregnancy; cramping, contractions, abdominal pain, and uterine tenderness.

Consequences: Placental abruption deprives the fetus of oxygen. It is a major risk factor for preterm delivery and stillbirth.

Diagnosis: An ultrasound exam.

Treatment: When the separation is minor, bed rest for a few days usually stops the bleeding. Moderate cases may require complete bed rest. Severe cases (when more than half of the placenta separates) can require immediate medical attention and delivery of the baby.

Fetal Distress

A fetus may be in distress due to birth defects, problems with the umbilical cord, reactions to medication, or pre-term labor.

Symptoms: Fetus stops moving around and kicking. If, after 26 weeks of pregnancy, you count fewer than 10 kicks in a day, or if the baby is moving a lot less than usual, see your healthcare provider right away.

Consequences: Risk of stillbirth.

Diagnosis: A nonstress test (NST) which measures the response of the baby's heart rate to each movement the baby makes as reported by mother or seen by a health care provider on an ultrasound screen; contraction stress test is usually ordered if the nonstress test shows a problem. This test stimulates the uterus to contract with the drug pitocin to look at the effect of contractions on the baby's heart rate; biophysical profile (BPP; a combination of the NST and an exam of the baby's breathing, body movement, muscle tone, and amount of amniotic fluid).

Treatment: Treatment depends on results of tests. If a test suggests a problem, this does not always mean the baby is in trouble. It may only mean that the mother needs special care until the baby is delivered. This can include a wide variety of things (such as bed rest and further monitoring) depending on the mother's condition.

Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia (once called toxemia) is a pregnancy complication that involves blood pressure and other organ systems, usually the liver and kidneys

Symptoms: High blood pressure—usually around 140/90; protein in the urine; swelling of the hands and face; sudden weight gain—1 pound a day or more; blurred vision; severe headaches, dizziness; intense stomach pain. Usually occurs after about 30 weeks of pregnancy.

Consequences: Preeclampsia can be very serious. Women with preeclampsia have an increased risk of seizures, placental abruption, and stroke. In the most severe cases, preeclampsia can be fatal to mother and/or baby.

Diagnosis: Blood pressure test; urine test; evaluation by a health care provider.

Treatment: The only cure is delivery, which may not be best for the baby. Labor will probably be induced if condition is mild and woman is near-term (37 to 40 weeks of pregnancy). If a woman is not yet ready for labor, her provider may monitor her and her baby closely. May require bed rest at home or in hospital, until blood pressure stabilizes or until delivery.

Pre-Term Labor

Early or pre-term labor happens after 20 weeks but before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy.

Symptoms: Contractions, either painful or painless, that occur more than four times an hour, or are less than 15 minutes apart; menstrual-like cramps that come and go; abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea; dull backache that may radiate around to the abdomen; increase in or change in color in vaginal discharge; constant or intermittent pelvic pressure

Consequences: If labor cannot be stopped, babies face many potential complications, depending on how prematurely they are born.

Diagnosis: Monitoring of uterine contractions by wearing an elastic belt around waist that holds a transducer or small pressure-sensitive recorder. Can be worn at the health care provider's office, hospital, or home.

Treatment: Lie down with feet elevated; drink 2 or 3 glasses of water or juice. If symptoms do not subside within one hour, contact health care provider. May require medications called tocolytics or magnesium sulfate to stop contractions.

Post-Partum Depression

Post-partum depression (PPD) is a serious kind of depression that needs medical attention and treatment.

Symptoms: Feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, anger, irritability, restlessness, hopelessness, or isolation; changes in sleep or eating habits; difficulty concentrating

Consequences: Some women with PPD have difficulty bonding with or caring for their babies, and themselves. Untreated depression could lead to self-harm.

Diagnosis: Evaluation by a health care provider.

Treatment: Can be successfully treated in most cases with antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, participation in a support group, or a combination of these treatments.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Adapted from the National Women's Health Information Center.