Pregnancy Red Flags: Symptoms You Should Not Ignore

An obstetrical emergency is defined as a life-threatening condition that occurs during pregnancy. There are not too many of them, and they are not common. You will probably never have any of these symptoms, but you should know them. They are sometimes called “red flag” symptoms of pregnancy. If you have one of these symptoms, you absolutely, positively have to call your doctor, call 911, or go the emergency room.

Seven Pregnancy Emergencies

There are also some emergencies that can occur during delivery, but in those cases, you are already under the care of your health care provider. These are the emergency conditions that may happen when you are at home:

  • Ectopic pregnancy, or a tubal pregnancy, occurs when your egg implants in your fallopian tube instead of inside your uterus. This will cause your tube to rupture, leading to internal bleeding. The treatment is surgery to remove the implanted egg, hopefully before the rupture occurs. Severe belly pain and heavy bleeding early in pregnancy are the main symptoms.
  • Placental abruption is when your placenta separates from the inside of your uterus too early. This causes bleeding inside your uterus and can be life-threatening for you and your baby. The treatment is delivery of the baby as soon as possible.
  • Placenta previa is when your placenta attaches to your uterus at the bottom of your uterus, covering the opening where your cervix connects to your uterus. This can cause severe bleeding that threatens you and your baby.
  • Preeclampsia and eclampsia, also called toxemia of pregnancy, are high blood pressure conditions caused by pregnancy. If blood pressure gets high enough, it can lead to kidney failure and seizures, threatening both you and your baby. The treatment is delivery of the baby, which ends the condition. Symptoms include severe belly pain, swelling, nosebleeds, headache, and dizziness.
  • Premature rupture of membranes is the breaking of your amniotic fluid sac before labor begins. This can lead to infection in your womb and to losing so much fluid that it threatens your baby. It is not an emergency if you are already at 37 weeks of your pregnancy when delivery can be induced. Always call your doctor.
  • Deep vein thrombosis can happen to anyone, so it is not an obstetrical emergency, but is more common in pregnancy. It is a blood clot that forms in your leg, usually your left leg. It is more common in pregnancy because your enlarged uterus blocks blood flow from your legs. The clot in your leg causes soreness and swelling. If the clot breaks free and travels to your lungs, it can lodge there and cause difficulty breathing, called a pulmonary embolism.
  • Amniotic fluid embolism is a rare condition that usually happens during labor but can also happen at home. This condition occurs when fetal cells and amniotic fluid leak back into your circulation, travel through your veins and block the blood flow to your lungs through your pulmonary artery. The embolism can cause difficulty breathing and a heart attack.

The 10 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

These emergency conditions are all uncommon. You should not worry about them, but you should know the red flags. Early treatment is the key to surviving them. They all need emergency care.

  • Bright red blood or clots from your vagina is never normal. Call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room.
  • Leaking or gushing amniotic fluid looks like straw colored fluid. Unlike urine, it has a slightly sweet odor. If your membranes rupture before week 37, call your doctor right away or go to the emergency room.
  • Severe and sudden abdominal pain or back pain is never normal and could be due to an ectopic pregnancy, or later in pregnancy could be a sign of eclampsia. Call your doctor right away or go to the emergency room.
  • Strong contractions before 37 weeks can be a sign of an obstetrical emergency. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room.
  • Sudden swelling of your hands and feet may be a sign of toxemia. Call or go to the ER. Other signs could be blurred vision, headache, dizziness, or nosebleed.
  • Swelling, pain, tenderness, warmth, and redness in your leg could be a deep vein thrombosis and requires an emergency call to your doctor.
  • Sudden difficulty breathing, chest pain, or coughing up blood could be a pulmonary embolism and requires a 911 call.
  • Any loss of consciousness or seizure is always an emergency.
  • Difficulty breathing and chest pain is always an emergency that deserves a 911 call. It could be a heart attack caused by an amniotic fluid embolism.

Never try to drive yourself to the emergency room if you have severe pain, severe bleeding, difficulty breathing, or chest pain. You could lose consciousness while driving, endanger other people, and not make it to the emergency room on time. Calling 911 is quicker, safer, and allows emergency responders to start treating you before you get to the hospital.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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