Pregnancy Isn’t Always Lovely – Hyperemesis Awareness Day

caitlin I had the privilege of meeting and being inspired by mother and fellow blogger, Caitlin Dean, when we went WWOOFing on her sheep farm in Cornwall, where she lives with her husband and three kids.

Caitlin is a three-time hyperemesis gravidarum survivor and a Registered General Nurse. She is passionately dedicated to raising awareness about HG and providing support to sufferers.

She is chair person for the charity Pregnancy Sickness Support as well as the author of the popular Spewing Mummy blog. Since today is International Hyperemesis Awareness Day, Caitlin is guest posting for me about this serious condition that too many of us know too little about.

The 15th May is International Hyperemesis Awareness Day and so I’m here today to tell you a bit more about this condition, which affected me personally through three pregnancies and has robbed dozens of my friends of their physical and mental health and even of their babies’ lives.

You see, hyperemesis gravidarum isn’t just an “acute bout of morning sickness”. It isn’t “a normal part of pregnancy”. It cannot be cured by a bit of ginger, thinking positively or getting some fresh air.

Hyperemesis Gravidarum (or HG for the sake of ease) is a serious complication of pregnancy which, if left untreated or poorly managed, can cause life-threatening complications for mum and baby.

Charlotte Bronte died of hyperemesis gravidarum at the age of 38 in her first pregnancy

Charlotte Bronte died of hyperemesis gravidarum at the age of 38 in her first pregnancy

Prior to the invention of IV fluids and modern anti-emetics last century, it was the leading cause of death in early pregnancy. Even now in the 21st century there are cases of women dying from complications arising from the condition.

Yet it’s similarity to the mild and not-at-all-dangerous pregnancy symptoms of “morning sickness” means that it is totally undervalued and frequently dismissed as women making a fuss or being neurotic.

Tell me this… Did getting a positive pregnancy test turn you into a neurotic drama queen?

No, me neither.

So what actually is hyperemesis gravidarum?

Well the main symptoms people associate with HG are nausea and vomiting. But we’re not just talking about feeling a bit sick and puking up now and then… we’re talking 24/7 all consuming, entire body crippling nausea which feels like you’ve been poisoned. We’re talking vomiting anywhere from 5 to 50 times a day, every day for weeks, even months.

We’re talking still vomiting when you have nothing but stomach acid and blood from your torn oesophagus left to spew up. We’re talking retching from the slightest movement, like rolling over in bed.

All this puking means that dehydration can rapidly set in… that brings headaches, dizziness, constipation, chapped lips and skin and guess what… more nausea and vomiting is a side effect of dehydration!

Malnutrition obviously sets in rapidly too and this can bring disturbances in your electrolytes, vitamins and minerals. So, for example, as your body becomes calcium deficient you become lethargic, dizzy, your bones begin to ache and it’s hard to walk steady, changes in your brain begin to cause depression (and of course the suffering and isolation contribute to this), confusion and anxiety.

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On top of this, you may experience ptyalism (excessive saliva production), which means you need to spit in a towel or cup constantly and are losing yet more fluid.

Heightened sense of smell is part and parcel of HG. And when I say heightened, what I mean is you grow the nose of a blood hound! You can smell everything, from rooms away with the doors closed.

It’s not just heightened though, it’s warped… your own child and husband can smell so revolting just trying to have a comforting cuddle can trigger more vomiting… and then, inevitably, guilt.

Okay so I’ve painted a fairly grim picture which hopefully helps those of you who haven’t suffered to start to understand what a women with this may be going through…

What can be done about it?

Well the key is early treatment, without which the condition can become rapidly dangerous for mum and baby. There are a number of safe and effective treatments for women to take and she should not be made to feel guilty for not have a totally “au natural” pregnancy. Information about treatments are available on the Pregnancy Sickness Support charity website.

If she is dehydrated then rapid rehydration at hospital is essential to stop the vicious circle. Increasingly hospitals are offering day case rehydration and are embracing better treatment regimes such as those developed by Birmingham Women’s Hospital.

Support is key and that’s where awareness amongst people who haven’t suffered comes in…

hands-2 How to help a friend with hyperemesis gravidarum:

First of all… don’t suggest ginger. Unless you’d like your friend to fantasize about smacking you in the gob because she’s too weak to actually do it?

This is such a common suggestion and is said with well meaning in an attempt to help but the reality is she has already tried ginger in various forms and discovered that it’s really horrible to regurgitate! If only it were as simple to use ginger… I wouldn’t need to write this post!

In fact, so much of how you can help is about what not to say rather because the reality is there is very little you can say or do that will relieve symptoms. There are links to posts about what not to say below but, back to what you can do to help.

• Offer to help with shopping, cleaning, washing, childcare. Picking up prescriptions is particularly helpful.

• Text her (but accept there may not always be replies), HG is an incredibly lonely journey.

• Try not to talk too much about pregnancy or be overly excited about it… many women are battling with feelings of huge disappointment, guilt and may be contemplating a termination.

• Want to get her a gift? How about some comfy maternity pyjamas, a pregnancy pillow or something totally non-pregnancy related. Avoid foodstuff and anything that smells. Audio books are great.

• If she’s worrying about medication or in need of support then do the research for her, contact Pregnancy Sickness Support on her behalf if she wants you to and register her for peer support. Sign post her to my Spewing Mummy blog too.

Most of all, and my particular message for HG Awareness Day is this: ADVOCATE for her. If you hear people dismissing her condition, claiming it’s “fashionable now” or saying that they had it but just got on with it, correct them, challenge them, tell it like it is.

Still now I hear comments like “I’ve never heard of that – it must be in her head” or “Women in my day didn’t get that, they couldn’t take time off work or lounge around in bed”.

It’s not just offensive to the sufferers but to womankind as a whole. It plays into the idea that our uterus’s cause hysteria and that we look to princesses for our fashion trends (God forbid the Duchess should break her leg for the mothers of Britain will need to start flinging themselves from the climbing frames to sport our matching plaster casts!).

And it is the ultimate injustice to the women and babies who have lost their lives to this illness.

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Check out these links:
10 tips to help a friend with hyperemesis gravidarum
What not to say to a woman with hyperemesis gravidarum
Spewing Mummy Blog
Hyperemesis Gravidarum – The Definitive Guide
Pregnancy Sickness Support (for UK and Ireland support and info)
HER Foundation (for US and worldwide support and info)
NHS Choices – Severe vomiting in pregnancy