11 Pregnancy Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore

Pregnancy comes with lots of questions, especially regarding health. Here are 11 symptoms that warrant a call to the doctor—and five more that don't.

Pregnancy can be tough both mentally and physically. Not only is your body changing in a million different ways, but every little twinge can make you panic that something is wrong. Luckily, in most cases, everything is fine, say the experts. "Women need to remind themselves that the vast majority of pregnancies go smoothly," says Bruce Flamm, M.D., an OB-GYN in Riverside, California. Still, pregnancy complications can happen. That's why it's important for every expecting parent to know about warning signs that warrant an immediate call to the doctor.

The following are pregnancy symptoms not to ignore, as well as a few others that aren't typically anything to worry about. Of course, these are only guidelines. Having these symptoms does not always mean you're experiencing a pregnancy complication. As always, you should call your prenatal care provider any time you have questions or concerns specific to your pregnancy.

Extreme Vomiting

Biggest concern between 4 and 20 weeks of pregnancy

Most of the time, morning sickness is an annoying yet normal symptom of pregnancy. But if you're throwing up so much that you can't keep liquids down or you're not urinating, you need to let your doctor know right away.

"This can lead to severe dehydration, which isn't good for you or your baby," says Isabel Blumberg, M.D., an OB-GYN in New York City. Extreme vomiting can also be a sign that you have hyperemesis gravidarum, a type of severe morning sickness that can last throughout your entire pregnancy.

You should also call the doctor if you haven't been able to keep food down for two days straight, if you think you have food poisoning, or if the vomiting is accompanied by a high fever. In these cases, you may need to go to the hospital for intravenous (IV) fluids.

Vaginal Bleeding

Concern throughout pregnancy

Vaginal bleeding, especially in the first trimester, is fairly common. In fact, approximately 25% of people experience some spotting or heavier bleeding in the first 13 or so weeks; of those, the vast majority go on to have perfectly healthy babies.

Bleeding in the first trimester can be a sign of miscarriage, especially if it's heavier and accompanied by cramping. But another common cause in very early pregnancy is the implantation of the egg in the lining of the uterus, says Daniel Landers, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Benign cervical polyps, which are fairly common whether you're pregnant or not, may also be to blame. Another potential cause is cervical bleeding, which can occur after sexual intercourse and even cervical exams.

Bleeding during pregnancy can be more worrisome in the second and third trimesters. It might occur when the mucus plug that seals the cervix is lost in early labor. Or "it could mean that you have a tear in your placenta or another problem that should be diagnosed by ultrasound," says Dr. Flamm. If you notice bleeding anytime during pregnancy, it's smart to call your doctor.

Severe Headache

Biggest concern after 20 weeks of pregnancy

If you get occasional headaches while expecting, it's probably no big deal. But if you find you're experiencing a severe and persistent headache—especially if it's accompanied by fainting, dizziness, and/or blurred vision—you should call your doctor.

Find a comfortable spot to sit down if you're feeling faint, and have someone sit with you while you chat on the phone or wait for your doctor to return your call. Try drinking a bit of water (dehydration is often the cause of these symptoms) and lying on your left side.

Severe headaches in the second and third trimesters might signal preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure. This condition reduces blood flow to the baby and can cause health problems for the pregnant person. People at greatest risk are those with a family or personal history of preeclampsia, high blood pressure, or preexisting diabetes. Obesity or carrying more than one baby also increases the risk of preeclampsia.

Aside from recurring or unremitting headaches, other symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • Abdominal pain, particularly on the right side
  • Blurred vision or seeing light flashes or spots
  • Excessive swelling of feet, hands, or face
  • Flu-like achiness without the usual runny nose or sore throat
  • Rapid weight gain (i.e., 10 pounds in 4 days)

Intense Abdominal Pain

Biggest concern in the first 12 weeks and the last few weeks of pregnancy

If you're less than 12 weeks pregnant, you're doubled over with sharp cramps on one side of your stomach, and you've yet to have an ultrasound, your doctor will want to rule out an ectopic pregnancy (in which the egg has implanted itself outside the uterus, usually in a fallopian tube).

Abdominal pain in late pregnancy, on the other hand, is usually normal. "Unless the pain is getting worse, unrelenting, or is associated with bleeding, it is likely just normal uterus growing, round ligaments stretching, or gas," explains Laura Riley, M.D., a maternal and fetal medicine specialist and Obstetrician and Gynecologist-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. But see the doctor for intense or recurrent pain later in the pregnancy since it could be anything from contractions to appendicitis.

Chills or High Fever

Biggest concern in the first few weeks of pregnancy

Running a fever is never fun, but during pregnancy, it can pose an additional health hazard to your baby. Your little one's growth and development depend on your body maintaining a steady and healthy temperature (around 98.6 degrees to 103 degrees Fahrenheit). Early in pregnancy, disruption of this temperature can wreak havoc on your system and lead to miscarriage. Later in your pregnancy, a higher temperature won't affect your baby as severely, but it may be a sign of infection or another issue that your doctor should know about.

Lots of Watery Discharge

Biggest concern between 24 to 36 weeks of pregnancy

If you're near the end of your pregnancy, a watery discharge might mean that your water has broken. It could also be normal vaginal discharge, which can increase in volume during pregnancy. Or you may have leaked a bit of pee—something that is quite common as you get closer to your due date.

But if you experience a sudden gush of fluids anytime before 37 weeks, call your doctor pronto. It might be a sign that your amniotic sac has ruptured, and you're going into preterm labor. But don't assume the worse as you head to the hospital: "Women immediately think that their water has broken too early when in reality the baby may have just kicked them hard in the bladder, and they lost some urine," says Dr. Flamm.

Contractions

Biggest concern between 24 and 36 weeks of pregnancy

Contractions are another potential sign of preterm labor. So, if you suddenly feel them when you're 24 to 36 weeks pregnant, pick up the phone. However, it's important to distinguish between labor contractions and harmless Braxton Hicks contractions, which are extremely common in late pregnancy and are called "practice" contractions and "false labor" for good reason. They are your body's way of prepping for true labor but don't indicate that childbirth is imminent.

Labor contractions come at regular intervals, increase in frequency and intensity, and don't stop when you change your position or activity. Braxton Hicks contractions show up without a predictable schedule, do not get progressively more frequent or intense, and will often stop if you adjust your body's position or what you doing. While they may be uncomfortable, they also don't tend to be as intense as true labor contractions.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, "If rest and hydration make the contractions go away, they are not true labor contractions." If you're not sure or have any other concerns about your symptoms, talk to your doctor right away.

Painful Urination

Biggest concern between 6 and 24 weeks of pregnancy

Although frequent urination is a common complaint during pregnancy, burning, and pain upon emptying your bladder are not. These symptoms are the telltale signs of a bladder infection or a urinary tract infection (UTI), which are common and especially uncomfortable during pregnancy.

Treating the infection can help prevent complications (which can include preterm labor and low birth weight babies). Left untreated over several days or weeks, however, a UTI can lead to a kidney infection, which is linked to preterm labor. So, while you don't need to see a doctor ASAP, make sure to schedule a visit soon if your symptoms don't resolve quickly.

Itching

Biggest concern in the third trimester

Are you itching all over your body, especially your hands and feet? While mild itching is common, severe itchiness could point to cholestasis of pregnancy, a liver ailment that should be monitored by a doctor. This condition is often harmless and can be treated with topical anti-itch medications. However, it can lead to preterm birth in extreme cases, which is why it's a pregnancy symptom not to ignore.

Lack of Fetal Movement

Biggest concern in the third trimester

Later in pregnancy, you'll begin to track your baby's movements by doing fetal kick counts. Most doctors recommend checking in with your growing baby a few times a day and looking for 10 movements within 10 minutes. If you try a count and don't feel any movement, drink a glass of fruit juice (the natural sugars boost your baby's blood sugar and can get them moving), then lie on your left side in a quiet room for half an hour.

If after a second try you don't feel any movement—or if two hours pass without 10 movements—be sure to ring your health care provider. "Usually it's nothing, and the baby was just being especially still," says Dr. Blumberg. "But your doctor will probably want you to have a stress test or an ultrasound to make sure there aren't any problems."

A long lull in fetal movement could signal oligohydramnios or low amniotic fluid, says Donna Dizon-Townson, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Low amniotic fluid affects some 10% of pregnancies. Often, the pregnant person is simply dehydrated, and drinking plenty of water will resolve the problem, says Dr. Dizon-Townson.

Oligohydramnios may also be caused by a rupture in the amniotic sac, the placenta's failure to work properly, or rarely, an issue involving the baby's kidneys or bladder (much of the amniotic fluid is actually the baby's urine). In such cases, bed rest can minimize fluid loss and prolong your pregnancy.

However, if you're experiencing this problem after the 38th week of pregnancy, your doctor may induce delivery to avoid the danger of the cord getting compressed, cutting off blood flow to the baby. The amniotic fluid serves as a cushion for the umbilical cord, preventing the baby from crimping or crushing their own lifeline.

A Pain in the Leg

Concern throughout the pregnancy

Pregnancy puts a person at six times greater risk for blood clots in the deep veins of the legs, a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Hormonal changes make your blood more likely to clot, says Dr. Dizon-Townson, while the pressure of the growing uterus on your veins can impede circulation, causing blood to pool in your legs and feet.

DVT might be difficult to distinguish from the ordinary leg cramps of pregnancy. But dependable red flags are that the symptoms occur in just one leg and the area is red, painfully swollen, and warm to the touch.

Unfortunately, DVT can also be "silent." In such cases, the first sign may be pulmonary embolism, when a piece of the clot breaks away and travels to the lung. If you experience shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid heart rate, call your doctor or 911 right away.

Pregnant people who are older, overweight, or genetically predisposed to clotting are at higher risk for DVT, as are those put on bed rest. If you are ordered off your feet for another pregnancy complication, your doctor may recommend you take an anticoagulant medication like heparin or wear special compression stockings to promote circulation, says Dr. Dizon-Townson.

For people who are otherwise healthy, staying active and well-hydrated may help to prevent clots, adds Dr. Dizon-Townson. It's also important to get on your feet in the hours and days after the delivery when DVT risk remains high. Movement promotes circulation and decreases the risk of developing DVT.

Pregnancy Symptoms Not to Worry About

There are also plenty of symptoms that may be challenging to deal with during pregnancy but are not cause for alarm. Definitely mention these symptoms to your health care provider when they ask how you've been—they should know what's going on, even if it's no big deal—but there's no need to worry about them.

Fatigue

It takes a lot of work to grow a baby, and many people find themselves sleeping more and exercising less. Energy levels wax and wane during pregnancy, and it is important for expectant parents to listen to their bodies and rest when they feel the need.

Alice Domar, Ph.D., assistant professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School, tells patients that they don't need to feel like they must do everything during pregnancy. So, skip making dinner. Let the laundry sit unfolded once in a while. After a long day of work, "it's OK to order a pizza and watch reruns" to rest and recharge, Dr. Domar says.

Vivid dreams or nightmares

"It is completely normal to have extremely vivid, even scary nightmares or dreams because of the pregnancy," Dr. Domar says. Many pregnant people report an increase in random, lifelike dreams. "Hormones make it hard to differentiate in the middle of the night between reality and nightmares," Dr. Domar says. "While these dreams seem to heighten in the third trimester, they are normal and typically subside once pregnancy is over."

Constipation

The baby pressing down on a person's rectum and the slowing down of intestinal muscles due to pregnancy hormones make constipation a common complaint during pregnancy. The iron in prenatal vitamins or iron supplements for anemia (another side effect of pregnancy) can also cause constipation.

There is no need to immediately worry about occasional constipation, as most people find relief by increasing their fiber intake, drinking more fluids, and exercising. Some over-the-counter stool softeners and suppositories are helpful and safe to try and can alleviate constipation as well.

Confusion or forgetfulness

"Pregnancy brain does exist," Dr. Domar says. "Women are more forgetful, especially in the third trimester." Although it may be frustrating to forget words, appointments, or tasks at times, it's part of the pregnancy package. An expectant parent may feel like they're losing their mind, but the stress of pregnancy and a future new baby can affect memory.

Mood swings

People experience changes in their sleep patterns and eating habits during pregnancy, and these adjustments may affect their emotional state. Dr. Domar explains that it's completely common to feel "scared, irritable, or ambivalent" when pregnant.

It isn't talked about as often, but pregnancy is an extremely emotional experience, and there's a lot going on in a person's head during those nine or so months. Sometimes a pregnant person's feelings change hourly and move quickly from happy to sad to nervous.

"Women have a lot of insecurity over whether they're going to be a good mother," Dr. Domar explains. The most important thing is to realize that these questions and fears are a normal part of pregnancy, but definitely get help if you feel as though something is seriously wrong or if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else.

The Bottom Line

The experience of pregnancy can be exciting and joyful. But it also includes a process of big changes to the body that often come with a range of symptoms—and sometimes complications. There are many symptoms, from minor aches to nausea, that are expected and perfectly normal. However, some symptoms shouldn't be ignored as they may indicate a problem for you or your baby. So, it's important to contact your prenatal care provider right away if you notice any concerning symptoms.

Additional reporting by Marguerite Lamb
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