Pregnant women are more likely to experience blood clots called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism, which could be life-threatening without prompt treatment. Here’s what you need to know about causes, symptoms, and getting help.

An image of a pregnant woman holding her leg.
Credit: Getty Images.

You might associate blood clots with airplane rides and hospital stays, but did you know they're also more common while expecting?  Pregnant women are seven times more likely to develop blood clots in the deeper veins, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Perhaps the most serious consequence of untreated DVT is a pulmonary embolism, a condition caused when a bit of the blood clot breaks off and makes its way into your lungs. And it can be deadly: Pregnant influencer Emily Mitchell, 36, who ran The Hidden Way blog, made tragic headlines when she died suddenly in December 2020 of a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. 

Keep reading to learn about what causes blood clots during pregnancy, the telltale symptoms, and how to get treatment.  

What Causes Blood Clots?

Your blood usually clots for a good reason: to stop bleeding and help your body heal after an injury. DVT occurs when your body signals the clotting process to begin at the wrong time or in the wrong place. The clots commonly happen in the leg or groin, but they might also appear in your arm, liver, intestines, brain, or kidney, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Most people who get blood clots are older; however, pregnant women are at risk because uterine pressure slows down their circulation. A expecting mother's blood also has more factors circulating in it that cause clotting. In addition, you might not be as mobile as you were before pregnancy, and immobility is another danger for DVT. Additional factors may also increase your risk—for example, your family members had blood clots, you're obese, you have a serious infection, or you have had a traumatic accident or a cesarean delivery.

Symptoms of a Blood Clot During Pregnancy

The symptoms of DVT are usually pretty obvious, although not everybody experiences them, says the Cleveland Clinic. DVT usually affects only one leg or arm. Your skin will be cool and pale, but the area where the blood clot forms will swell. It might also become red and hot. People with DVT often find it painful to walk, and it might hurt if you flex your toes toward your knee. 

When the blood clot travels to the lung's blood vessels, negatively affecting oxygen levels and blood flow, it causes a pulmonary embolism. According to the Cleveland Clinic, common signs of pulmonary embolism include sudden shortness of breath, chest pain that worsens with exertion, cough (possibly with bloody sputum), clammy skin, rapid heartbeat, and excessive sweating. A pulmonary embolism can damage the heart or lung without prompt treatment—and it could also lead to death in extreme cases.

It's important not to confuse blood clots with other common pregnancy concerns. For example, superficial venous changes (like the threadlike purple or red lines you might see developing just beneath your skin during pregnancy) aren't serious. Most fade away after childbirth, or you can have them safely removed by a dermatologist. You may also notice varicose veins at some point in your pregnancy. These are the result of extra blood pooling in your veins, usually in your legs. Although they can be unsightly and uncomfortable, you usually won't have to treat them with anything other than added rest, putting your feet up, and wearing support stockings.

What to Do for a Pregnancy Blood Clot

Call your practitioner immediately if you have symptoms of a blood clot. They will conduct a diagnostic ultrasound to confirm it. Treatment usually includes hospitalization and heparin, a pregnancy-safe medication that thins your blood. You'll most likely keep taking this blood thinner throughout your pregnancy and for a period of time after the baby is born.