The pregnant body — it’s a beautiful thing! It’s also a sweaty, gassy, crampy, achy, leaky, bumpy thing. Nobody says growing a new human is easy, but few people tell you about all the weird and gross ailments that can crop up throughout those nine months. Here’s why they happen, and what you can do about them.
Why it happens: Stretched skin is itchy skin, so it isn’t unusual to have an itchy belly by your third trimester. Increased blood supply to all of your skin can lead to itching in other places too, such as the scalp, vulva or (I’m so sorry) your butthole.
Itchy rashes can also appear in pregnancy, with fancy names such as PUPPP and pemphigoid gestationis. Most of these are harmless, but if they drive you crazy your provider may be able to give you medication that will help.
Be aware, though: Severe itching on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet is one sign of a liver condition called intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, where bile from the liver builds up throughout your body. This condition can harm the baby, even causing premature birth or stillbirth, so definitely get any severe itching checked out.
What you can do: For ordinary itching, keeping skin moisturised may help. Try to keep your skin comfortable: Avoid too-tight waistbands and any products that have irritated your skin in the past. Oatmeal baths can be soothing, too — either with real oatmeal or Aveeno powder.
Why it happens: The fluid that makes you feel so bloated everywhere else can also put pressure on your wrists. One of the nerves of your hand, the one that serves your thumb and first few fingers, runs through a tight space between the bones and ligaments of your wrist.
This is the infamous carpal (wrist) tunnel, so your symptoms are roughly the same as people who type all day and end up with carpal tunnel syndrome. The good news is that yours will go away soon after you give birth, so there’s no need for surgery.
It’s also easier for your hands and feet to fall asleep during pregnancy, compared to when you aren’t pregnant. (Blame that same fluid buildup, or sometimes the baby can put pressure on nerves that lead to the legs.) Serious conditions relating to numb hands and feet in pregnancy are rare, but it’s worth mentioning to your doctor anyway.
What you can do: Wrist splints can help relieve carpal tunnel pressure. If you type a lot, or use your hands in any other repetitive motion, make sure you’re taking care of your wrists and not making the problem any worse.
Why it happens: The feet tend to flatten during pregnancy, perhaps partly because your growing belly shifts your centre of gravity forward. You’re also carrying more weight than before, and your ligaments are relaxing a bit. Your feet could end up taking more space than they usually do, so that you’ll be uncomfortable in your usual shoes.
Swelling can also cause soreness in the feet and lower legs, and they can also contribute to your shoes feeling too tight.
What you can do: Supportive shoes may help. Try arch supports, even if you don’t normally wear them, and consider seeing a professional for orthotics if the drugstore ones don’t do the trick.
To reduce swelling, prop up your feet when you can, and try to avoid standing around, especially in hot weather. And stop by the shoe store — you may need a larger size to be more comfortable.
Why it happens: Progesterone, one of the hormones that surges during pregnancy, can cause your skin to make more oil than usual. If you tend to get acne right before your period, it’s a similar situation except this time you have to deal with the increased hormones for months rather than days.
What you can do: Pregnancy acne isn’t any different than regular acne, so the usual advice still applies: Keep your face clean, moisturise so your skin doesn’t dry out either, and look for non-comedogenic skin care products and cosmetics.
Some acne medications are not safe to use during pregnancy, including isotretinoin (Retin-A), tazarotene and spironolactone. If you have these in your medicine cabinet, stop using them immediately and ask your ob/gyn or dermatologist about your next best options.
Some other acne medications are less dangerous but not usually recommended, including Differin gel and some antibiotics.
Here’s a rundown of the most common acne medications and their risks, but be sure to talk to your doctor to figure out what’s best for you.
Cravings for Things That Are Not Food
Why it happens: Nobody is really sure, but the leading theory is that weird cravings result from your body telling you that it desperately needs iron or some other mineral. Common non-food cravings include dirt, clay and laundry starch.
What you can do: Some pica cravings aren’t dangerous, like if you’re really into ice or cornflour. But many are.
If you have strong cravings for something you definitely shouldn’t be eating — such as dirt, which is full of germs and, you know, dirt — ask your doc if they can check your levels of iron and other minerals, and discuss the risks of whatever the thing is that you’re eating.
You can also approach the urge to eat these things as if it were a bad habit you need to break: Distract yourself, call a friend, and try to find healthier things to eat when a craving hits.
Why it happens: Blood circulation increases during pregnancy, and as your nose contains many small blood vessels, they’re prone to burst. Thus, nosebleeds can happen.
What you can do: If you have to wipe or blow your nose, do so gently. And in the winter when air is particularly dry, use a humidifier in your home.
If your nose does start to bleed, the easiest way to stop it, according to a Harvard doctor, is to tilt your head forward, place your thumb and index finger on either side of your nose bridge, slide those fingers down to the sudden “drop off” where the bones give way to cartilage, and then pinch for at least five minutes.
Leg Cramps (‘Charley Horses’)
Why it happens: It isn’t totally clear, but some theories say it has to do with fatigue, the uterus pressing on certain nerves, decreased circulation in the legs from the pressure of the baby on blood vessels, or a lack of minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium.
These sharp lower-leg cramps often happen at night during the second and third trimesters, jolting you awake.
What you can do: In terms of prevention, stretching your calf muscles before bed might help. With your hips facing forward, you can move one foot in front of the other and then slowly lunge forward until you feel a stretch in your calf. Then switch legs. Or try slowly flexing and releasing your feet several times.
Though there’s no evidence that taking extra potassium prevents leg cramps, some women swear that eating bananas helps.
If you feel a cramp coming on, release it by contracting the opposite muscle as hard as you can. If your calf is cramping, the opposite muscle is your tibialis anterior, on the front of your shin. To do so, flex your foot as if you’re trying to make your toes touch your shin, and hold that position for a few seconds.
Why it happens: Fluctuations in hormones, especially drops in estrogen, are to blame for these intense rushes of heat that can blur your vision, make you sweat profusely, and leave you with chills.
What you can do: While uncomfortable and annoying, hot flashes are usually harmless. To help prevent them, stay hydrated, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise.
Paced breathing may also help — when you feel a hot flash starting, expand your lungs with very slow, controlled breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.
At night, sleeping on a cooling pillow can help you stay comfortable. Wear breathable clothing, and if the hot flashes happen frequently, you might want to carry a handheld fan around. See your doctor if the hot flashes are accompanied by a fever.
Why it happens: With your uterus resting on top of it, your bladder is under a lot of pressure during pregnancy. Every time you cough, sneeze or laugh, it gets an extra push. Therefore, while embarrassing, it is totally normal to leak pee.
What you can do: Pee often (before you feel a strong urge to “go”), wear pads or pantyliners, and do a lot of Kegel exercises, which help strengthen the muscles that control the flow of urine.
Also, watch your weight gain during pregnancy — women who gain an excessive amount during pregnancy are more likely to experience urinary incontinence.
Why it happens: You have an increased level of progesterone, a hormone that relaxes your uterus but also your digestive tract. Gas builds up more easily, which leads to bloating, burping and flatulence.
What you can do: It’s impossible to prevent gas, but there are ways to reduce it. You may want to track your food to identify what gives you the most gas — unfortunately, many gas-inducing items are good for you, including beans, peas, whole grains, broccoli, asparagus, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
Avoid carbohydrate drinks, fatty fried foods and artificial sweeteners, as those can can make digestion problems worse.
Moving your body can help, too. Walking, jogging and other exercise can allow gas to pass more quickly through your digestive track.
A Super-Heightened Sense of Smell
Why it happens: Hormones, particularly estrogen. Fortunately, the worst of it — when every scent seems to give you a wave of nausea — usually subsides fairly early on in pregnancy.
What you can do: Leave your windows open when possible, wash your clothing and sheets often, avoid foods and fragrances you suddenly can’t stand to smell, and surround yourself with scents that you’re OK with. Giving yourself whiffs of peppermint, ginger or cardamom may also help ease nausea. Then eagerly wait for the first trimester to be over.