Regardless of where you live, summertime and pregnancy aren't a great match. The increased sunlight, humidity, and heat can aggravate normal pregnancy changes, such as fluid retention, skin discoloration, and fatigue. It can also increase your risk of dehydration. Here's what you need to know to keep cool this summer.
You already know that too much sun exposure can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. But even a small amount of sun exposure can add to the skin discoloration and darkening so many women experience on their face and body during pregnancy. When you're pregnant, melanin -- a natural pigment produced by the body that is responsible for freckles and tans -- responds to hormonal changes by depositing more color in the nipples and vulva. It can even create a dark line down the center of your lower abdomen.
Melanin is also responsible for the brownish or rust-colored patches some women develop on their forehead, cheeks, upper chest, and just above the upper lip (so much for that pregnancy glow!).
Brunettes and darker-skinned women are more prone to this facial discoloration, known as melasma. It often fades after the baby is born.
While you can't stop melasma from developing, you can avoid making it worse by protecting your skin, especially your face and upper chest, from sunlight and tanning lamps. (Don't be fooled into thinking a deep tan will hide the spots -- they will just get darker and show through the tan.) Try to avoid being outside for long periods between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. When you are outside, wear a hat with a brim and use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
You may have already noticed dryness and itching on your breasts and abdomen, where your skin has been stretched by weight gain. This will likely intensify as summer heat depletes your skin of much-needed moisture, so be sure to drink at least eight to 10 glasses of noncaffeinated liquids daily. You'll need to drink even more if you're active or exercising. Protect your skin by using bath oil or moisturizing shower gel, and apply a moisturizing oil or lotion right after bathing, while skin is still a bit damp.
To soothe itching skin, soak in a warm bath with baking soda or oatmeal. If you can stand it, a cold-water bath can provide even more relief. After bathing, pat yourself dry or let your skin dry naturally. You can also ask your doctor to suggest a safe, over-the-counter anti-itch preparation.
Heat and sweat can cause a rash known as prickly heat, or miliaria, to crop up. The tiny clear or red bumps cause itching and what many people describe as a prickling sensation. Miliaria usually appears where two skin surfaces rub together, such as beneath the breasts.
To prevent the rash, after bathing, gently pat the area between skin folds dry. Also avoid wearing tight clothing and synthetic fibers; opt for cotton, linen, and other natural fibers that allow moisture to evaporate more readily. Try to expose already irritated areas to air whenever possible. If the rash is bad, talk to your doctor about using a medicated preparation, such as a 1-percent hydrocortisone cream.
Swelling and Puffiness
During pregnancy, your body retains about 15 pounds of extra fluid in order to support the physical changes happening inside you and your baby. A little more than half of this is used to produce amniotic fluid and to help hydrate and nurture the cells of your baby and the placenta. Most of the remaining fluid is found in your bloodstream, where it enables the blood to carry more oxygen and nutrients to (and remove waste products from) you and your baby.
This increase in blood volume is the main reason many women experience mild swelling, or edema, in their feet and ankles in late pregnancy. Edema occurs in these areas because they're because they're below the level of your heart and it's harder for blood to flow upward to return to the heart. Also, your growing uterus puts pressure on the veins carrying blood back from your lower body. In addition, summer's high temperatures can make your body retain too much fluid, causing your feet and ankles to swell even more. This is especially true when you live in a humid climate where the added moisture in the air makes it more difficult for your body to cool itself.
Swelling in your feet and legs should subside after you elevate them above heart level for 20 to 30 minutes -- rest them on a pile of pillows. If this doesn't reduce the swelling, or if your face, eyes, or both hands look significantly swollen or puffy, call your physician. She may want to check you for preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous pregnancy-related form of high blood pressure. Here are some other things you can do to prevent swelling and discomfort:
- Make sure to drink enough fluids.
- Avoid prolonged standing or sitting. If your work requires you to stand, try to walk around for about five minutes each hour to improve the blood flow from your feet to your heart, or do stair-step exercises, lifting one leg at a time as if you were walking up stairs. If you must sit for prolonged periods, rest your feet on a high stool, a box, or a stack of books to increase blood flow. If this bothers your back, elevate only one leg at a time.
- If you expect to be on your feet a lot, wear maternity support panty hose and use a maternity belt (both are available at maternity stores; hose may also be found at pharmacies) to take the weight of the baby off the blood vessels in your legs. Unfortunately, both of these items can make you even hotter, which for some women cancels out the benefit of wearing them.
- Rest on your side for at least 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon, and sleep on your side at night. This position improves circulation by taking the weight of the baby off the vena cava, a major blood vessel that returns blood from the lower body to the heart.
Dehydration and Heat Exhaustion
Ironically, all that extra fluid does not protect you or your growing baby from an increased risk of dehydration during the summer. In fact, fluid retention may actually contribute to dehydration by moving fluid out of the cells and into the spaces surrounding them. In hot weather, your body tries to cool itself off by perspiring, which further reduces the amount of fluid circulating in your body.
Dehydration is particularly dangerous during pregnancy because it can make your baby's heart beat too fast and increase your risk of preterm labor. Maternal signs of dehydration include thirst, dry or chapped lips, dry skin, fatigue, and constipation. The only fetal sign that you may notice is that your baby is not as active as usual (always call your doctor if you notice a decrease in your baby's kicking over a 24-hour period).
If you experience symptoms of dehydration, drink a full glass of water or juice immediately, and make a conscious effort to increase your overall fluid intake throughout the day. It's best not to wait for these signs, though, because by the time they occur, you and your baby may have already lost important fluid. If this fluid is not quickly replaced, both of you could suffer heat exhaustion. Symptoms of this potentially dangerous condition include fatigue, weakness, anxiety, muscle cramps, nausea, and fainting. If you believe you're suffering from heat exhaustion, drink a glass of juice while someone else calls 911 or drives you to the emergency room.
To prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion, drink at least eight to 10 glasses of noncaffeinated liquids daily, try to limit your time outdoors during midday, and avoid places and situations that might cause you to overheat. If your home or workplace is not air-conditioned, a fan and an air filter or dehumidifier can help.
Your Cheat Sheet
Follow these simple rules to avoid many of the difficulties that come with summertime:
- Drink eight to 10 glasses (64-80 ounces) of noncaffeinated liquids daily -- even more if you perspire a lot. Water is best, but other good choices include low-fat milk, fruit and vegetable juices, lemonade, limeade, and Popsicles or sorbets made from juice.
- Wear lose, lightweight clothing made from natural fibers.
- Protect your skin from the sun. Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 on your face and other exposed areas, even if the sky is cloudy. (Clouds won't protect you from damaging light rays!) Take extra care between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. if you live in a northern state and 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. if you live in the South. Avoid open-weave fabrics, which allow sunlight to reach your skin.
- Spend as much time as possible in cool places. If your home or workplace is not air-conditioned, a portable fan will offer some relief. If you live in a humid climate, an air filter or dehumidifier can help improve air quality.
- Fight the heat with cool showers and cold packs. Apply cold packs or ice cubes to your wrist pulse points, the back of your neck, and your forehead. And keep some long-lasting soft-gel cooling strips in your car or purse (typically used on the forehead to provide relief from a fever).
All this advice may seem like a lot to remember, but most of it involves commonsense measures. Just use your own good judgment, and before you know it, cooler fall temperatures will arrive to give you a break.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your won health or the health of others.