Gastroenteritis in pregnancy – how common is it, and can it cause early labour?
If you are a pregnant woman with a suspected stomach bug, I know you’re probably feeling all kinds of anxious about your pregnancy and wanting to take the best care of yourself and your little one. Unfortunately, one thing that can come up is gastroenteritis, which is basically a nasty stomach bug that can make you feel pretty miserable. And the worst part is that as a pregnant woman, you are more likely to get it, and the symptoms can hit you harder. But don’t worry; we’re here to help you understand what causes it, how it can affect you during pregnancy, and whether it could possibly cause early labour. Let’s dive in together and get you the information you need to take care of yourself and your baby!
Gastroenteritis in pregnancy
Medically speaking, Gastroenteritis or Gastro is a condition characterised by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Gastroenteritis is a common condition in pregnancy, with a reported incidence of up to 10%. This is because you are more susceptible to infections due to changes in your immune system and hormonal levels. The most common causes of gastroenteritis in pregnancy are viral infections such as norovirus, rotavirus, and adenovirus. Bacterial infections such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Escherichia coli can also cause gastroenteritis in pregnant women.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis in pregnancy
The early signs of gastroenteritis in pregnant women are similar to those in non-pregnant people and may include:
- Nausea and vomiting: This is often the first symptom of gastroenteritis and can occur at any time of the day or night.
- Diarrhea: Pregnant people may experience loose stools or frequent bowel movements, which can be watery or contain blood or mucus.
- Abdominal pain: Cramping and pain in the stomach and intestines may occur, ranging from mild to severe.
- Fever: Some women may develop a fever, which is a sign of infection.
- Dehydration: Pregnant women may become dehydrated more quickly than non-pregnant people, which can cause symptoms such as dizziness, dry mouth, and decreased urine output.
Is it morning sickness or gastroenteritis?
Morning sickness and gastroenteritis can have similar symptoms, making it difficult to distinguish between them. However, there are some key differences to look for. Morning sickness usually begins early in your pregnancy, around the sixth week, and typically lasts until the end of the first trimester. Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, can occur at any time during pregnancy and usually resolves within a few days.
Morning sickness typically involves only nausea and vomiting, while gastroenteritis can also include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and fever. You may find your morning sickness is often triggered by certain smells or foods, while gastroenteritis doesn’t discriminate.
Most importantly, while morning sickness can be uncomfortable, in most cases, it is not severe enough to cause dehydration or require hospitalisation. Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, can be more severe and may require medical treatment to prevent complications.
Can gastroenteritis cause early labour?
Early labour, also known as preterm labour, is when a woman goes into labour before 37 weeks of pregnancy. It is something that you want to avoid if at all possible. It can be caused by various factors, including infections, stress, and problems with the uterus or cervix.
Some studies have linked gastroenteritis to preterm labour, but the evidence is unclear. Some studies suggest that gastroenteritis can increase the risk of preterm labour by up to 7-fold, while others have found no association between gastroenteritis and preterm labour.
Confusing, right? Let’s look at what actually happens in early labour and why there is a link between the two. It’s thought that the inflammation and dehydration caused by gastroenteritis can trigger the release of prostaglandins – hormones that can cause contractions of your uterus. Prostaglandins are also involved in the ripening of your cervix, which is a necessary step in the onset of labour. Taking that into account, it is not hard to see why there is a risk that the release of prostaglandins caused by gastroenteritis could lead to premature cervical ripening and early labour.
On top of the direct effects of gastroenteritis on labour, there are also indirect effects that can increase the risk of preterm labour. For example, severe dehydration caused by gastroenteritis can lead to changes in the body’s electrolyte balance, which can affect the functioning of the uterus and lead to contractions. Dehydration can also cause a reduction in blood volume, which can reduce blood flow to the uterus and placenta, leading to fetal distress and premature labour.
How is gastroenteritis treated in pregnancy?
The treatment of gastroenteritis in pregnancy depends on the severity of symptoms and the underlying cause of the infection. In most cases, the condition will resolve on its own within a few days, and treatment will focus on managing symptoms and preventing dehydration.
Mild cases of gastroenteritis can be managed with rest, fluids, and a bland diet. Oral rehydration solutions such as Hydralyte and Powerade can help to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Anti-nausea medications may be prescribed to reduce vomiting and help you retain fluids. In more severe cases, hospitalisation may be necessary to provide intravenous fluids and electrolytes.
If the gastroenteritis is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the infection. However, antibiotics should be used with caution in pregnancy, as some antibiotics can cross the placenta and affect fetal development. As always, your doctor will know best.
Prevention of gastroenteritis in pregnancy
Prevention of gastroenteritis in pregnancy is key, as it can lead to serious complications for both the mother and the fetus. You should take extra precautions to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and cooking meat and eggs thoroughly.
If you have developed gastroenteritis, seeking medical attention promptly to prevent dehydration and other complications is essential. Early treatment can help to manage symptoms and prevent the infection from progressing.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2021). Preterm Labor and Birth. Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/preterm-labor-and-birth.
Mayo Clinic. (2021). Premature birth. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/premature-birth/symptoms-causes/syc-20376730.
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