Pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting may have dominated the headlines when Kate Middleton was hospitalized during her pregnancies, but they're actually incredibly common and it's rare for the condition to be so severe that it requires medical attention.
"More than 80 percent of women have some degree of nausea during the first three months of pregnancy," says Sharon Phelan, M.D., an obstetrician at The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque. "Because it's so generalized across populations, we think it's a condition that evolution selected for over the years."
In other words: Morning sickness might just be good for you. It's likely that in caveman times, pregnant women who were totally turned off by the idea of eating unusual food during the first trimester — when the baby is most vulnerable — avoided certain toxins that could have lead to miscarriage.
That's right: Your morning sickness is trying to protect you!
That probably isn't much consolation to the women who are vomiting several times a day, however. And if you're an expectant mom battling hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a rare pregnancy condition marked by extreme nausea and vomiting, it's more about just getting by.
Symptoms of HG typically crop up around 9 weeks and tend subside around the 20-week mark, though sometimes they last longer. No matter the duration, the round-the-clock queasiness and vomiting can be brutal for a mom-to-be and carry serious consequences, including dehydration, weight loss and malnutrition.
In rare cases, mothers with HG might be admitted to the hospital. Most women will just get an IV to rehydrate their bodies. Sometimes the IV will contain antinausea medications such as Zofran or Reglan; these prescription drugs can be taken orally, but patients with HG often can't keep them (or anything) down.
"These drugs are both Category B, which means they're considered relatively safe to take during pregnancy," says Sharon Mass, M.D., of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "I know many women want to avoid medications in pregnancy, but there are safe treatments out there to avoid dangerous dehydration." In extreme cases, patients who become malnourished as a result of their inability to eat may also be given Total Parenteral Nutrition, or TPN, intravenously.
I struggled with HG during both of my pregnancies and twice experienced just how exhausting and debilitating the condition can be. Though the nausea is the worst you'll ever experience, the good news is, it doesn't last forever.
Here are a few tips to help you make it through:
During my second pregnancy, my doctor prescribed me anti-nausea pills, which were a godsend and helped make the pregnancy far more comfortable. By 16 weeks, I was able to eat well, and after 20 weeks, I only needed half of a dose to keep meals down.
Does this mean medicine works for everyone with HG? No. But for some sufferers, it's the only thing standing between them and malnutrition or a trip to the ER. And in some cases, it's what allows their bodies to support a pregnancy at all. Talk to your health care provider to figure out if medication is right for you.
When you have HG, the most mundane things—a blast of sunlight, a sip of water—can leave you sprinting for the nearest bathroom. For me, it was driving to and from the grocery store. Being jostled in the car made me vomit instantly, to say nothing of the sight and smell of the food. It was so bad that between weeks 6 and 20 of my pregnancy, my husband had to handle all of the shopping. It was for the best anyway, because I usually only came home with rice and crackers, which I'd later throw up.
Because hyperemesis is rare, it's important to find a provider who understands the condition and has experience treating women with it. After all, there's nothing worse than going to your OB after losing 20 pounds only to be told that the extreme nausea is all in your head or will pass after the first trimester. (Some women suffer with it all the way up to the delivery date.) Ask trusted friends for recommendations, or do an online search for a local health care provider who's well-versed in HG. A site like HelpHer.org is a good place to start.
Even the most independent woman will need some assistance during this most challenging portion of her pregnancy, especially if she has other children. So don't be shy (or feel guilty!) about calling in favors from family, friends and neighbors. You'll find that everyday tasks become impossible when you're hovered over a toilet all day, and even an offer to do a load of your laundry or make a pharmacy run can be a huge help.
Only an estimated 1-3 percent of women have experienced hyperemesis, so chances are you won't meet too many moms-to-be who know what you're going through. In fact, feeling misunderstood is often one of the most challenging parts of having the condition. If you're over well-meaning suggestions to just eat some crackers and sip ginger ale, consider finding a support group online. There, you'll meet women who are going through the same thing as you and who may be a great resource for solutions or encouragement. If nothing else, chatting with other sufferers can help you remember that you aren't weak or crazy—you just have HG.
Sure, hyperemesis is difficult, but it isn't permanent. Remember that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will absolutely be worth the struggle. No, you probably won't feel grateful every moment of your journey, and that's okay. Mind-blowing nausea has a funny way of sucking away our gratitude. But trust that in the end, having a difficult pregnancy will probably make you appreciate motherhood—and not being pregnant—even more.