9 Scary-Sounding Pregnancy Conditions—and What You Need to Know About Them

Freaking out about a pregnancy-related diagnosis? With the right interventions and treatments, these may not be as scary as they sound when your doctor breaks the news.

pregnancy conditions Gajus/Shutterstock
As any expecting or new mom can attest, life changes from the second you see those two parallel lines on that pregnancy test. Knowing you're carrying a human life inside of you is undoubtedly exciting, but it's also incredibly nerve-wracking. In a matter of moments, everything you do can seemingly impact the growing life inside of you. So, it's no surprise if you start questioning everything you eat, drink, think, are exposed to, and do or don't do. The good news is your odds of having a healthy pregnancy and baby are high. In fact, many of the symptoms and scenarios you'll experience during those nine months will be pretty harmless. We talked to top OB/GYNs to uncover the truth behind some of the most scary-sounding conditions.

1. Spotting and light vaginal bleeding

Any bleeding's scary, especially when you're pregnant and it's coming from your lady bits. But implantation bleeding, particularly in the first trimester, is actually quite common. "This type of bleeding or spotting typically happens 6 and 12 days after conception (day 24 or 26 of your cycle) and affects around 30 percent of pregnant women," says Sherry A. Ross, M.D., OB/GYN and women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and author of the book ‘she-ology:  The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.’ "It occurs when the embryo implanting itself in the uterine lining and is often the very first sign of pregnancy."

2. Vanishing twin

The name for this condition sounds like a cause for concern, however, it often results in a healthy pregnancy. "Many pregnancies that are singleton start off as twins," says Edward Marut, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist with Fertility Centers of Illinois in Chicago. "Vanishing twin occurs when one twin does not develop, and is typically not even perceived by the patient—there's often no bleeding or pain and the pregnancy goes on as normal." Fertility practices are more likely to pick up on this type of condition, since they typically start performing ultrasounds earlier than most OB/GYN offices, but your doc's office should be able to tell by the end of the first trimester.

3. Placenta previa

Any issue having to do with your placenta, which provides nutrients and oxygen to your growing baby, is alarming, but this rare condition usually resolves on its own. It's important to note that placenta previa is different from placenta accreta, a condition that's far more serious and occurs when the placenta attaches itself to the uterine wall. Placenta previa, or "low lying placenta," occurs when the placenta partially or totally covers the mother's cervix. "When this is seen early in pregnancy, it can be scary, but luckily, most will move out of the way as the uterus grows in pregnancy and resolve on their own," says Thomas Molinaro, M.D., OB/GYN of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey (RMANJ). This diagnosis will likely result in extra monitoring from your doctor to ensure that you'll be able to safely deliver your baby. It's rare in the first place, but if it does persist later in pregnancy, it can cause hemorrhage and will require a C-section. According to the American Pregnancy Association, you will likely end up on bed rest, and you may need steroid shots to boost your child's lung development.

4. Braxton Hicks contractions

Mild, gentle contractions throughout pregnancy are usually no biggie. "As the uterus grows and prepares for labor, it contracts periodically to keep the muscle in shape and essentially ready for the time of delivery," explains Alison Zimon, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and co-medical director at CCRM Boston, one of the nation's leading fertility clinics. "These normal contractions, called Braxton Hicks contractions, can be impressive and are typically felt by pregnant women (they can even be seen and felt externally), but they're not painful and don't increase in frequency or intensity over time." If you're experiencing painful, regular and increasingly more intense contractions months or weeks before your due date, it may be a sign of early labor. In this case, seek an evaluation with your OB, as soon as possible.

5. Gestational diabetes

It's not uncommon for pregnant women who have never had diabetes before, but experience high blood glucose (sugar) levels during pregnancy, to be diagnosed with gestational diabetes, says Debra Gerson, L. Ac,. Diple. O.M., an integrative provider who is board-certified in Oriental Reproductive Medicine and practices in Denver, Colorado. In fact, a 2014 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the prevalence of gestational diabetes is as high as 9.2 percent. This condition that affects the mother in late pregnancy can come with some significant complications for you and your baby, if left untreated. "The possibility for a very large baby is much higher, which can lead to a need for Cesarean delivery or increased fetal or neonatal risks like stillbirth and birth-related injuries." She adds that there is also an increased risk for preterm labor and respiratory distress syndrome. Rest assured, blood sugar usually returns to normal soon after delivery, but if you've had gestational diabetes, you will be risk for type 2 diabetes. "It's imperative to eat a healthy diet low in sweets and refined carbohydrates and get plenty of moderate exercise during pregnancy and after." And you'll be closely monitored by your OB/GYN through the rest of your pregnancy, to help minimize the risk of complications.

6. Corpus luteum cyst

The word "cyst," especially when it's attached to your ovaries, is straight-up scary. Since you're no longer ovulating during pregnancy, you won't produce any new simple cysts that are common to the ovaries. However, there's an expected and normal cyst of pregnancy called a corpus luteum cyst that produces the hormones estrogen and progesterone to help the pregnancy develop normally. "Rest assured, these cysts, which your OB/GYN can detect during an ultrasound in the first trimester, typically go away after 8 weeks and do not affect pregnancy at all," says Ross. "In fact, they're helpful to the pregnancy." Persistent ovarian cysts continuing throughout pregnancy, however, could be a problem if they are large in size (larger than 6 cm).

7. Colostrum nipple discharge

Discharge coming from the breasts can be scary! "Your breasts undergo a complete metamorphosis during pregnancy, as they transform into the perfect little buffet for your newborn baby," explains Ross. "Colostrum is the very first sign that your breasts have begun the process of preparing for optimal breastfeeding." This yellow and thick liquid coming from your breasts typically occurs during the second trimester and can continue until a few days after delivery. Instead of fearing it, embrace it, since it's normal, rich in protective immunities and precedes milk production. You can expect breast milk to show up around two to five days following delivery.

8. Pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP)

The tongue-twisting name for this condition can be intimidating, but it is actually a fairly common skin condition seen in pregnancy—especially in the third trimester and postpartum. It affects around one in every 150 women, and most often presents as an itchy, bumpy rash on the belly, legs, buttocks or arms. The good news? It's totally benign. "Moms-to-be start itching on their belly and then go on the internet and read about cholestasis of pregnancy, which is a dangerous, unrelated condition," says Sarah Yamaguchi, M.D., OB/GYN at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. "But cholestasis is usually itching that starts on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, not in the same areas that PUPPP rash usually first appears." While doctors are not totally sure why it occurs, one theory suggests that it's the result of fetal cells invading the mother's skin. If you experience PUPPP, your doctor can suggest a topical corticosteroid that's safe for pregnancy, and you can try cool, wet compresses and oatmeal baths.

9. Cervical insufficiency

A "cervical insufficiency" or "cervical incompetence," means your cervix thins out or opens (dilates) too early during pregnancy, which can be a predictor for preterm delivery, explains Joshua U. Klein, MD, chief medical officer and reproductive endocrinologist at Extend Fertility in New York City. The good news is that this condition can easily be diagnosed during an ultrasound, by measuring the length of a woman's cervix. "We can often manage this 'expectantly,' (monitored weekly for example), so that it needs no additional intervention." It is important to note, however, that, if left untreated, cervical insufficiency can cause a second-trimester miscarriage or a preterm birth. "Cervical length screening, progesterone treatment and placing a stitch in the cervix (cerclage) can help to prevent miscarriage and preterm birth," explains Gerson.