You probably know the common signs – morning sickness, fatigue, tender breasts and frequent urination. But there are other side-effects that don’t make their way as often into discourse. We spoke to two experts about symptoms such as pregnancy discharge, heartburn and constipation, and whether bleeding or spotting is ever okay.
Why do we get pregnancy symptoms?
Sydney GP Dr Ginni Mansberg tells Mamamia pregnancy is an enormous change for the body to take on.
“There are a huge number of hormonal changes, and almost every system is affected through pregnancy,” she says.
“You put out much bigger amounts of progesterone and oestrogen.”
Dr Mansberg says the thyroid – a gland in the neck that’s in charge of making hormones – plays a key role in developing a healthy baby. During pregnancy, she says it increases its output by about 40 per cent.
“Because blood volume increases so much, a lot more is demanded of so many of our hormones and they all have to increase.”
And it’s all these hormonal changes that are largely responsible for most pregnancy side-effects.
“All people are different and our responses to hormonal changes and physical changes in pregnancy can vary a huge amount,” Dr Mansberg says.
Who is more prone to pregnancy symptoms?
Dr Philippa Costley, a Melbourne OB/GYN and spokeswoman for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says pregnancy is like any other condition, in that how it presents itself can vary from person to person.
“Some women breeze through pregnancy while for others it can take a huge toll physically and mentally. There is huge variety,” she says.
Dr Costley says there are some factors that can influence how symptoms are displayed. She says women in their 40s are more likely to experience more severe symptoms.
“In general as women get older, their bodies find holding a pregnancy more difficult,” she says.
She also says a woman’s health status before falling pregnant can impact how your body copes, such as having a higher BMI or untreated psychological conditions.
She stresses that no matter what symptoms you are noticing, it’s always important to discuss them with your midwife or doctor.
At what stage are pregnancy symptoms the strongest?
Dr Mansberg says early pregnancy is when most women will be hit hardest by symptoms. She explains that as the foetus just about doubles in size every day, huge demands are being placed on the body and hormone production goes into overdrive.
“[Symptoms are strongest] right at the beginning, when the baby is doing an enormous amount of growing and the hormonal changes are at their peak,” she says.
In the third trimester, Dr Mansberg says things settle down in the hormone department, which actually provides some relief to an expectant mum – despite the large belly!
In more welcome news, Dr Costley says most symptoms will then begin to vanish very shortly after giving birth.
“The majority of symptoms resolve after pregnancy and the body is amazing at recovering,” she says.
Some women will have ongoing effects of symptoms such as a change in body shape, heartburn, back pain, and impact to pelvic floor, the bladder or bowels. If this occurs, this should be discussed with your doctor.
A guide to lesser-known pregnancy symptoms.
Constipation or flatulence.
Dr Costley says constipation is very common, but stresses there are good treatments out there.
“Digestion is slowed from pregnancy hormones,” Dr Costley says. This can be present throughout pregnancy and can get worse as the months progress.
Women can also be affected by constipation post-birth. The severity of this may depend on the mode of delivery, for example if you’ve had a c-section and are on strong painkillers, this can worsen the constipation.
Dr Costley says increased vaginal discharge is very common.
“It’s generally a thick, white discharge that’s not offensive at all,” she says.
Some women can experience other discharges and you should consult someone if it is particularly offensive, itchy or coloured (such as green/yellow).
Heartburn and indigestion.
Heartburn and indigestion are very common, because pregnancy hormones can affect the muscle around the top of the stomach.
“It can relax it, which is why food tends to be at risk of going back up,” Dr Costley says. “It’s actually good to treat it, because untreated it can irritate the oesophagus.”
Dr Costley says that while there can be spotting at the time of implantation, this is usually before you even take your pregnancy test.
She stresses that during pregnancy, you shouldn’t have bleeding at any stage. If you do experience this, you should consult your doctor or midwife.
Some women may experience changes to their body’s hair growth, Dr Costley says. For instance, the hair on your belly and pubic area may thicken and darken.
While it can be distressing at the time, this is very common and it returns to normal after pregnancy, although can take weeks or months to completely resolve.
A blocked nose.
“There is a change in the mucous membrane from pregnancy hormones, so it’s really common to have a blocked nose or to have symptoms of sinusitis when pregnant,” Dr Costley says.
There isn’t really any effective treatment for it, but it resolves itself when pregnancy is over.
Bleeding nose and gums.
As well as a stuffy nose, some women experience bleeding to the nose and gums – all related to the same change in the mucous membrane.
There is a risk of developing varicose veins or for these to worsen if they were already present before pregnancy.
While this symptom generally improves after pregnancy, for some women it does not completely disappear and the effects can be more severe in subsequent pregnancies, Dr Costley says.
Now this is a weird one, but it’s 100 per cent legit.
“There is a phenomenon of a metallic taste in your mouth that’s thought to be hormonally derived,” Dr Costley explains.
More often than not, it disappears after the first trimester.
Vivid dreams and nightmares.
Some women will find they experience very vivid dreams and nightmares, which can be both scary and uncomfortable.
Dr Costley says the cause driving this effect is not known. “But it’s certainly well documented and it will resolve after pregnancy,” she says.
“Mood swings go along with the psychological and emotional changes in pregnancy, and pregnancy definitely predisposes women to anxiety and depression,” Dr Costley says.
If this symptoms appear to progress from simple mood swings to a more serious condition, it’s important to discuss this with a health professional.
Dr Costley says that if a woman has untreated mental health conditions before becoming pregnant, these can be exacerbated.
“Libido can go either way with women,” Dr Costley says. Some find it drops dramatically while others find the hormone shift causes an increase.
Colds and flu.
Dr Costley says women are more prone to getting sick because of immunity changes.
“During pregnancy, immunity levels drop to compensate for the fact you have a person inside you, so you’re more at risk of developing any kind of infection.”
She says while it’s not usually concerning unless your symptoms are severe, it’s always best to get checked by your medical professional.
Headaches can vary from person to person. Dr Costley says women who habitually tend to get frequent headaches find that these either improve or worsen during pregnancy.
In later pregnancy, headaches or altered vision can be a sign of more serious complications such as pre-eclampsia, and it’s best to discuss these with your health professional.
Higher body temperature.
Dr Costley says women can find they feel hotter during pregnancy. This is because there is increased blood flow and increased blood volume required to circulate through to the growing uterus.
Hair growth goes into a dormant state during pregnancy, where you don’t tend to shed – meaning your locks take on a voluminous and luscious new look.
“It’s better for your bathroom floor too,” Dr Costley jokes.
After pregnancy, you can experience more accelerated hair loss but it’s nothing to worry about – it’s simply all that hair that would normally have fallen out can now shed. Your hair growth will return to a normal pattern before long.
Cravings for various foods are normal. But in rare cases, Dr Costley says women will crave – and eat – inedible objects like dirt and chalk. This condition is called ‘pica’. She says it’s very important to discuss any such cravings with your medical professional.
Abnormal sleep patterns.
Sleep can be affected for a variety of different reasons, Dr Costley says. It can be because of anxiety about the pregnancy, frequent urination from pelvic pressure, general discomfort, or finding it difficult to lie down for long periods of time. She says this symptom is generally seen in the later stage of pregnancy.
During pregnancy, breasts will grow or become tender, and nipples can darken. All these changes are normal and it’s just your body preparing for breastfeeding.
So, you can expect this to be your new normal until you stop breastfeeding.
Generalised swelling is very common in pregnancy and is often not a cause for concern, Dr Costley says. This generally resolves over the first few weeks following the birth.
However, severe oedema can be associated with complications such as pre-eclampsia. It’s something that’s best to check with your doctor or midwife.
Advice for dealing with pregnancy symptoms.
The effects of pregnancy can be overwhelming for some women, and Dr Mansberg has advice for any expectant mum feeling this way.
“My tip would be to look at your body in wonder and say ‘wow, I can really tell there is stuff going on here’ and right now in the world are literally thousands of women in your sisterhood experiencing identical symptoms, even if you can’t converse with them, they would understand you. And if you can feel connected to that shared experience of pregnancy and really leverage on that feeling with those women, it’s a really good way to cope,” Dr Mansberg says.
“I do see women who are actually petrified and are obsessively Googling and really worried about what’s happening to them. That’s a concern and if that’s happening to you, instead of marvelling at your body, I would talk about those fears to someone you trust or your doctor… Get help for that because there is help out there.”
The advice contained in this post is intended to be general in nature. Women experiencing pregnancy symptoms are urged to discuss them with their doctor.
What symptoms have you experienced in pregnancy? Tell us in the comments below.