Hyperemesis gravidarum: symptoms and support
Understanding hyperemesis gravidarum
Unlike morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum is a severe complication of pregnancy and not a normal part of it. Recognising and treating hyperemesis gravidarum is important and women suffering from it need support. Partners play a vital role in supporting the mum-to-be with this complex condition.
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What is hyperemesis gravidarum?
Hyperemesis gravidarum, or HG for short, is a serious complication of pregnancy. While it is characterised by nausea and vomiting, which are symptoms of common pregnancy sickness, it is in fact far more severe and there is a host of other symptoms women experience.
The nausea experienced in HG can be so intense that women describe feeling like they’ve been poisoned, and it can be relentless day and night. Vomiting varies with HG from not at all to in excess of 50 times a day, which can be extremely draining. Interestingly, many mums-to-be who vomit regularly still describe nausea as the worst part of the condition.
In addition to extreme nausea and vomiting, women may experience a very heightened and warped sense of smell, making eating difficult. They may also have an excessive amount of saliva they need to constantly spit out; this is called ptyalism and can be very distressing and embarrassing.
How does HG differ from mild and moderate pregnancy sickness?
Most women expect to suffer some degree of morning sickness when they find out they are pregnant. Some even look forward to this rite of passage and take it as a reassuring sign that their pregnancy is progressing, long before they have a bump to show. The Pregnancy Sickness Support helpline experts say that women are generally willing to put up with surprisingly severe symptoms before they seek help with them.
If your symptoms are more severe than you were expecting, then you may be on your way to HG. To find out if what you are experiencing is normal, moderate or severe, take a look at this chart of symptoms from Pregnancy Sickness Support.
HG can also last longer than morning sickness, with symptoms usually subsiding at around 20 weeks, rather than the traditional 12 weeks. For some women symptoms can continue until the birth, although most will still see an improvement at around 20 weeks1.
What can be done about HG?
The most important thing if you are suffering HG is to get medical help. There are various treatments available, and your doctor should be willing to try to find the right treatment for you. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have produced guidelines for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy and hyperemesis gravidarum, which you can download and take to your doctor to discuss.
There are also a number of self-help remedies and coping strategies that Pregnancy Sickness Support have found help relieve the symptoms for some mums. But remember, no two pregnancies are the same and what works for one mum may not work for another, so it’s important to find the right strategy for you.
Support for HG
Although we know that HG is not a psychological condition and no amount of positive thinking will prevent it, it can take a massive toll on your mental health. Experiencing weeks – and sometimes months – of near-constant nausea and vomiting is psychologically hard for anyone, and this can be compounded by the loss of a normal pregnancy that many women feel.
Pregnancy Sickness Support run a helpline and a peer support network of volunteers across the UK. They also offer information about the treatment options and a supportive ear. You can get in touch with them via their website.
Advice for partners
HG can be a scary and overwhelming condition for a new parent-to-be. Seeing your partner go from her normal, healthy self to severely ill in a matter of days might leave you feeling lost and confused and, crucially, unsure how to help her.
First of all, be careful not to belittle the experience. Even though it’ll all be worth it in the end, the symptoms can be utterly torturous. Try to help as much as possible around the house and with any other children to enable her to rest as much as possible. Rest is key to managing symptoms.
One of the most important roles of a partner to a woman with this condition is as an advocate. Attend appointments with her and be sure the doctor understands just how ill she is. Use quantifiable measures if you can, for example, ‘She has drunk 200ml of fluid in 24 hours’ or ‘She has vomited 10 times this morning alone.’
Partners are welcome to call the Pregnancy Sickness Support helpline on 024 7638 2020 for information about HG, and there is a section specifically for partners in my book, Hyperemesis Gravidarum – The Definitive Guide.
Written by: Caitlin Dean
A three time hyperemesis gravidarum survivor, Caitlin Dean now dedicates her time and energy to raising awareness about the condition in the media, providing support to sufferers and writing prolifically on the subject through her Spewing Mummy blog, healthcare journals and magazines. As a Registered General Nurse and Chairperson for UK charity Pregnancy Sickness Support she is involved in research, pioneering services and health care professional education about HG. She has also written two helpful books on the condition.
1. Pregnancy Sickness Support. Survey of women's experience of hyperemesis gravidarum. 2013.
Last reviewed: 4th October 2016
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