When you’re pregnant, it’s easy to dismiss every health issue as pregnancy-related. Feeling short of breath? It’s because you’re carrying extra weight. Feet suddenly swollen? Totally normal when you’re preggo. While pregnancy can rightly be blamed for a lot of things, experts say some seemingly normal symptoms could be a sign that you’ve actually developed a condition or disease that requires specific treatment.
You’re at greater risk of getting sick when you’re pregnant since you’re in an immune-compromised state. “Pregnant women are more susceptible to some diseases, they may have more significant response than a non-pregnant woman, and the available treatments may be limited due to concern about fetal exposure,” Jason James, M.D., medical director at Miami’sFemCare Ob-Gyn, tells SELF. But there’s no need to panic! Although there are a few health issues that can pop up while you’re pregnant, once they’re on your radar, you and your doctor can figure out how you can stay as healthy as possible. Here, experts explain seven health conditions to watch out for when you’re pregnant.
The hallmark of this pregnancy complication is high blood pressure and damage to certain organs, often the kidneys, according to Mayo Clinic. Preeclampsia usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women who have had normal blood pressure until then. If left untreated, it can lead to serious complications for both mom and baby, including lack of proper blood flow to the placenta and a higher risk of heart disease, according to Mayo Clinic. A common preeclampsia symptom is swelling of the hands and feet, which can unfortunately also happen during a healthy pregnancy. Others include shortness of breath, headaches, and peeing less than usual.
2. Peripartum cardiomyopathy
This form of heart disease is a weakness of the heart muscle that begins sometime during the end of a woman’s pregnancy. “For a lot of women, the physiologic changes that occur in pregnancy make the blood vessels dilate and make the heart work harder,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. As a result, some can develop heart disease during pregnancy. Other than pregnancy, the cause is unknown, according to John’s Hopkins Medicine’s Women’s Cardiovascular Health Center. Symptoms include swelling of the feet and legs and shortness of breath, both of which are pretty normal experiences at the end of pregnancy, making peripartum cardiomyopathy easy for women to miss. As with many diseases, there’s a broad range—some women can have a normal heart function again two weeks after giving birth, while others will take six months or more.
3. Fifth disease
This is a mild rash caused by the parvovirus B19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it’s usually not a problem for pregnant women and their babies, it can cause “serious pregnancy consequences,” James says. In some cases, a baby will develop severe anemia caused by the mom’s infection with fifth disease, and the woman will miscarry. But according to CDC data, this happens less than five percent of the time among women with the parvovirus B19 infection, and often in the first half of the pregnancy.
“This is not given enough attention, and it can have large implications on the pregnancy,” Sherry Ross, M.D., a women’s health expert at California’s Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells SELF. Many women who get pregnant have some form ofdepression or anxiety, she explains. Ross says factors like not sleeping well, hormonal fluctuations, generally feeling under the weather, and maybe not being too thrilled about being pregnant in the first place can lead a pregnant woman to experience depression. And, if a woman is already susceptible to depression, pregnancy can exacerbate the condition. “Women hate to admit that they’re depressed during pregnancy, but it’s something many struggle with,” Ross says.
You’ve probably heard that women can develop gestational diabetes—a form of high blood pressure—during pregnancy. But while it often goes away after a woman gives birth, developing gestational diabetes puts her at a much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “Until the last five or six years, it wasn’t recognized that this isn’t just something that can affect you when you’re pregnant,” says Streicher. Women with gestational diabetes often need to go on a strict diet to manage the disease during their pregnancy and need to be regularly monitored post-pregnancy for signs of type 2 diabetes.
Sure, you can develop appendicitis whether you’re pregnant or not, but it’s often missed during pregnancy because it presents itself differently. “Gastrointestinal distress, bloating, and constipation are pretty normal during pregnancy, but they’re also symptoms of appendicitis,” Streicher says. Pregnancy also moves your appendix, she points out, making the standard “pain in the lower right quadrant of your back” appendicitis symptom incorrect. Instead, she says, pregnant women may experience pain in the upper right quadrant of their back and simply write it off as heartburn.
7. Breast cancer
There is a link between breast cancer and pregnancy, and it often depends on your age, according to the Susan G. Komen organization. “Women who have their first child at later ages are at an increased risk of breast cancer compared to women who have their first child at younger ages,” the organization’s website says. Why? It may be related to breast cells. When you’re pregnant, your breast cells grow quickly. Any genetic damage those cells have gets copied as they grow, which can lead to breast cancer. The odds of having this genetic damage increase with age, raising an older mom’s risk.
When a woman is pregnant, it can also be easy to miss symptoms of breast cancer like a lump or nipple discharge. “Women who are pregnant aren’t doing their monthly exams and aren’t getting mammograms due to the pregnancy,” Streicher points out.