During pregnancy, nausea and morning sickness are some of the common pregnancy symptoms experienced by women. However, when these pregnancy symptoms become too severe, hyperemesis gravidarum (more commonly referred to as hyperemesis) may be to blame. But what causes hyperemesis gravidarum, what are the effects of hyperemesis and how is it treated?

What is Hyperemesis?

Hyperemesis is a severe form of pregnancy-related morning sickness characterized by excessive nausea and vomiting that inhibits a sufficient consumption of fluid and foods.

Severe morning sickness is defined according to the following guidelines:

  • loss of up to 5% of pre-pregnancy body weight, a figure which usually surpasses 10%
  • dehydration
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • metabolic imbalances
  • difficulty with daily activities

While more than half of women experience some form of morning sickness during pregnancy, only 1.5 to 2% of women suffer from hyperemeis gravida.

Causes of Hyperemesis

Although the exact cause of hyperemesis is unknown, there are a variety of medically-based theories as to some possible causes of this condition.

Some possible causes of hyperemesis include:

  • psychological changes that occur during pregnancy, including stress
  • gastrointestinal changes: digestive organs shift in order to provide room for the growing fetus, which can lead to acid reflux, nausea and vomiting
  • hormonal changes: specifically, a high level of oestrogen or high levels of human chorionic gonadotrophin (hcG) can lead to hyperemesis
  • a diet high that is high in fat
  • a type of bacteria, known as Helicobacter pylori, which can also cause stomach ulcers

Other risk factors for hyperemesis include: a history of vomiting during pregnancy, liver or kidney disease or a poor diet.

Hyperemesis Symptoms

The following are some common symptoms associated with hyperemesis gravidarum:

  • excessive pregnancy nausea or vomiting
  • anemia
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • extreme fatigue
  • vomiting of mucus, bile or blood
  • dehydration
  • dizziness or fainting
  • weight loss of five to 20 pounds

Symptoms of hyperemesis usually appear between the fourth and sixth week of pregnancy and generally improve moderately prior to the twentieth week of pregnancy. However, symptoms can sometimes last the entire pregnancy.

If any of these symptoms occur, you should consult your doctor immediately in order for a diagnosis to be made.

Hyperemesis Risks

If left untreated, hyperemesis can be life threatening for both a pregnant women and the unborn foetus.

Some health risks for a pregnant woman include:

  • nutritional deficiencies
  • high blood pressure
  • liver disease
  • kidney disease

Hyperemesis gravidarum pregnancy complications include:

  • early delivery
  • low birth weight
  • large for age baby
  • congenital heart disease

Miscarriage is very rare.


If left untreated, hyperemesis can lead to such complications as kidney or liver damage.

Because of its potentially serious side effects, hospitalization is the first step in hyperemesis treatment.

A comprehensive hyperemsis gravidarum treatment plan includes antiemetic (non-vomiting) drugs, coupled with a nutritional plan (administered through IV to prevent dehydration and malnutrition); bed rest may also be prescribed.

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