Up to 80% of pregnant women have nausea and vomiting to some extent. Nausea and vomiting are most common and most severe during the 1st trimester. Although commonly called morning sickness, such symptoms may occur at any time during the day. Symptoms vary from mild to severe.
Hyperemesis gravidarum Hyperemesis Gravidarum Hyperemesis gravidarum is extremely severe nausea and excessive vomiting during pregnancy. Women with hyperemesis gravidarum, unlike women with ordinary morning sickness, lose weight and become... read more is a severe, persistent form of pregnancy-related vomiting. Women with hyperemesis gravidarum vomit so much that they lose weight and become dehydrated. Such women may not consume enough food to provide their body with energy. Then the body breaks down fats, resulting in a buildup of waste products (ketones) called ketosis. Ketosis can cause fatigue, bad breath, dizziness, and other symptoms. Women with hyperemesis gravidarum often become so dehydrated that the balance of electrolytes Overview of Electrolytes Well over half of the body's weight is made up of water. Doctors think about the body's water as being restricted to various spaces, called fluid compartments. The three main compartments are... read more , needed to keep the body functioning normally, is upset.
If women vomit occasionally but gain weight and are not dehydrated, they do not have hyperemesis gravidarum. Morning sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum tend to resolve during the 2nd trimester.
Usually, nausea and vomiting during pregnancy are related to the pregnancy. However, sometimes they result from a disorder unrelated to the pregnancy.
The most common causes of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy are
Morning sickness (most common)
The causes of morning sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancy are unclear. However, these symptoms may be related to an increase in the levels of two hormones during pregnancy: human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is produced by the placenta early in pregnancy, and estrogen, which helps maintain the pregnancy. Estrogen levels are particularly high in women with hyperemesis gravidarum. Also, hormones such as progesterone (produced continuously during pregnancy) may slow the movement of the stomach’s contents, possibly contributing to nausea and vomiting.
Less common causes
Occasionally, prenatal vitamins with iron cause nausea. Rarely, severe, persistent vomiting results from a hydatidiform mole Molar Pregnancy A molar pregnancy (hydatidiform mole) and other types of gestational trophoblastic disease are growth of an abnormal fertilized egg or an overgrowth of tissue from the placenta. Women with a... read more (abnormal placental growth with or without a fetus due to an abnormally fertilized egg).
Causes of nausea and vomiting unrelated to the pregnancy include
Disorders of the abdomen such as appendicitis Appendicitis Appendicitis is inflammation and infection of the appendix. Often a blockage inside the appendix causes the appendix to become inflamed and infected. Abdominal pain, nausea, and fever are common... read more , a blockage in the intestine (intestinal obstruction Intestinal Obstruction An obstruction of the intestine is a blockage that completely stops or seriously impairs the passage of food, fluid, digestive secretions, and gas through the intestines. The most common causes... read more ), or inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis Cholecystitis Cholecystitis is inflammation of the gallbladder, usually resulting from a gallstone blocking the cystic duct. Typically, people have abdominal pain, fever, and nausea. Ultrasonography can usually... read more )
Brain disorders such as severe headaches (particularly migraine headaches Migraines A migraine headache is typically a pulsating or throbbing pain that ranges from moderate to severe. It can affect one or both sides of the head. It is often worsened by physical activity, light... read more ), bleeding within the brain (intracranial hemorrhage Intracerebral Hemorrhage An intracerebral hemorrhage is bleeding within the brain. Intracerebral hemorrhage usually results from chronic high blood pressure. The first symptom is often a severe headache. Diagnosis is... read more ), and, rarely, increased pressure within the brain (increased intracranial pressure), which can be caused by a number of disorders, such as infection, tumors, or bleeding
However, these disorders usually cause other symptoms that are more prominent, such as abdominal pain or headaches.
Doctors first try to determine whether nausea and vomiting are caused by a serious disorder. Morning sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum are diagnosed only after other causes are ruled out.
In pregnant women who are vomiting, the following symptoms are cause for concern:
Signs of dehydration, such as decreased urination, decreased sweating, increased thirst, a dry mouth, a racing heart, and dizziness when standing up
Vomit that is bloody, black (resembling coffee grounds), or green
No movement of the fetus if the fetus is older than 24 weeks
Confusion, weakness or numbness of one side of the body, speech or vision problems, or sluggishness
Vomiting that persists or that is worsening
When to see a doctor
Women with warning signs should see a doctor right away, as should those with vomiting that is particularly severe or is worsening.
Women without warning signs should talk to their doctor. The doctor can help them decide whether and how quickly they need to be seen based on the nature and severity of their symptoms. Women who have mild to moderate nausea and vomiting, have not lost weight, and are able to keep some liquids down may not need to see a doctor unless their symptoms worsen.
What the doctor does
Doctors ask about symptoms and the medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause and the tests that may need to be done (see table Some Causes and Features of Nausea and Vomiting During Early Pregnancy Some Causes and Features of Nausea and Vomiting During Early Pregnancy ).
Doctors ask about the vomiting:
When it started
How long it lasts
How many times a day it occurs
Whether anything relieves or makes it worse
What the vomit looks like
How much there is
The woman is asked whether she has other symptoms, particularly abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation, and how her symptoms have affected her and her family—whether she can work and care for her children. The woman is also asked about vomiting in previous pregnancies, about previous abdominal surgery, and use of drugs that may contribute to vomiting.
During the physical examination, doctors first look for signs of serious disorders, such as blood pressure that is too low or too high, fever, confusion, and sluggishness. A pelvic examination Pelvic Examination For gynecologic care, a woman should choose a health care practitioner with whom she can comfortably discuss sensitive topics, such as sex, birth control, pregnancy, and problems related to... read more may be done to check for evidence of a hydatidiform mole and other abnormalities.
This information helps doctors determine whether vomiting results from the pregnancy or another, unrelated disorder. For example, vomiting probably results from the pregnancy if it:
Began during the 1st trimester
Lasts or recurs over several days to weeks
Is not accompanied by abdominal pain
Vomiting probably results from another disorder if it:
Began after the 1st trimester
Is accompanied by abdominal pain, diarrhea, or both
Doctors often use a handheld Doppler ultrasound device, placed on the woman's abdomen, to check for a heartbeat in the fetus. If no heartbeats are detected by the time they should be (at about 11 weeks), a hydatidiform mole is possible.
If the woman is vomiting often or appears dehydrated or if a hydatidiform mole is possible, tests are usually done. Which tests are done depend on the cause doctors suspect:
Hyperemesis gravidarum: Urine tests (to measure ketone levels) and possibly blood tests (to measure electrolyte levels and other substances)
A hydatidiform mole: Ultrasonography of the pelvis
A disorder unrelated to the pregnancy: Tests specific for that disorder
If vomiting is due to a disorder, that disorder is treated. If vomiting is related to pregnancy, some changes in diet or eating habits may help:
Drinking or eating small amounts more frequently (5 or 6 small meals a day)
Eating before getting hungry
Eating only bland foods, such as bananas, rice, applesauce, and dry toast (called the BRAT diet)
Keeping crackers by the bed and eating one or two before getting up
Drinking carbonated drinks (sodas)
If vomiting results in dehydration, the woman may be given fluids intravenously. If vomiting persists, she may be hospitalized. She may be given sugar (glucose), electrolytes, and occasionally vitamins intravenously with the fluids. After vomiting has subsided, she is given fluids by mouth. If she can keep these fluids down, she can begin eating frequent, small portions of bland foods. The size of the portions is increased as the woman can tolerate more food.
If needed, drugs to relieve nausea (antiemetic drugs) are given. Doctors choose drugs that appear to be safe during early pregnancy. Vitamin B6 is used first. If it is ineffective, another drug (doxylamine, metoclopramide, ondansetron, or promethazine) is also given.
Ginger (available as capsules or lollipops), acupuncture, motion sickness bands, and hypnosis may help, as may switching from prenatal vitamins to children's chewable vitamins with folate.
Rarely, weight loss continues and symptoms persist despite treatment. Then the woman is fed through a tube passed through the nose and down the throat to the small intestine. Tube feeding Tube Feeding Tube feeding may be used to feed people whose digestive tract is functioning normally but who cannot eat enough to meet their nutritional needs. Such people include those with the following... read more is continued for as long as necessary.
Usually, nausea and vomiting during pregnancy do not cause weight loss or other problems, and they resolve before or during the 2nd trimester.
Hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe, persistent form of pregnancy-related vomiting, is less common and can cause dehydration and weight loss.
Nausea and vomiting may be due to disorders not related to pregnancy, such as gastroenteritis, a urinary tract infection, or, rarely, a blockage in the intestine.
Modifying the diet may help relieve mild nausea and vomiting that are related to pregnancy.
If women with hyperemesis gravidarum become dehydrated, they may need to be given fluids intravenously.