Pregnancy Complications

Symptoms, Problems, Diagnosis, Treatment

If you have any of the symptoms in this article, contact your health care provider right away to lower your risk of complications. There are various specific tests done during the first trimester of pregnancy, and a few screenings later in pregnancy to help prevent these problems, or spot them early. Your health care provider will give you a schedule for visits, tests, and screenings. It is important to follow your health care provider's advice about treatment so you have a safe delivery and a strong, healthy baby.

Ectopic Pregnancy

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

Potential Problem: Ectopic pregnancy (the fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube).

Diagnosis: Blood tests; vaginal or abdominal ultrasound exam. An ultrasound is a screening tool that uses high-frequency sound waves to form pictures of the fetus on a computer screen; 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

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.

Potential Problem: Gestational diabetes (a form of diabetes that usually occurs in the second half of pregnancy).

Diagnosis: Blood test one hour after drinking a glucose (form of sugar) drink. Most women can control their blood sugar levels with diet and exercise.

Treatment: Some women with gestational diabetes or women who had diabetes before pregnancy need shots of insulin to keep blood sugar levels under control.

Hepatitis B

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.

Potential Problem: Hepatitis B (can be passed on to the baby).

Diagnosis: Blood test.

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

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

Potential Problem: HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases can be passed on to the baby.

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.


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

Potential Problem: Listeriosis (infection from the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, which can be found in soft cheeses and ready-to-eat deli meats).

Diagnosis: Blood test.

Treatment: Antibiotics (often prevent infection in the baby).


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

Potential Problem: Toxoplasmosis (parasitic infection that can be passed on to the baby, which can be contracted from cat feces or soil, or from eating raw or undercooked meat that contains the parasite).

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

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

Potential Problem: Urinary tract infection (if left untreated, can travel to kidneys, which can cause premature, or early, labor).

Diagnosis: Urine test.

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

Placenta Previa

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

Potential Problem: Placenta previa (the placenta, or the temporary organ joining the mother and fetus, covers part or all of the cervix and can cause severe bleeding usually toward the end of the second trimester or later).

Diagnosis: An ultrasound exam.

Treatment: If diagnosed after the 20th week of pregnancy, but with no bleeding, requires to cut back on 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

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

Potential Problem: Placental abruption (a condition in which the placenta separates from the uterine wall before delivery, depriving the fetus of oxygen).

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

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.

Potential Problem: Baby possibly in distress, potential 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 - 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.


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

Potential Problem: Pregnancy-related high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia, also called toxemia). Usually occurs after about 30 weeks of pregnancy.

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

Symptoms: Contractions, either painful or painless, anytime during pregnancy, 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

Potential Problem: Early or pre-term labor (labor occurring after 20 weeks but before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy).

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

Potential Problem: Post-partum depression (a serious kind of depression that needs medical attention and treatment).

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.


Symptoms: Soreness or a lump in the breast accompanied by a fever and/or flu-like symptoms; possibly nausea and vomiting; yellowish discharge from the nipple; breasts feel warm or hot to the touch; pus or blood in the milk; red streaks near the area; symptoms could come on severely and suddenly.

Potential Problem: Breast infection (mastitis).

Diagnosis: Evaluation by a health care provider. If symptoms are not relieved within 24 hours of the following steps, see a health care provider (you may need an antibiotic).

Treatment: Relieve soreness by applying heat (heating pad or small hot-water bottle) to the sore area. Massage the area, starting behind the sore spot. Use your fingers in a circular motion and massage toward the nipple. Breastfeed often on the affected side. Rest. Wear a well-fitting supportive bra that is not too tight.

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Article Sources

  • Adapted from the National Women's Health Information Center.