I had hyperemesis gravidarum during both my pregnancies. Here's what it's like to suffer from severe morning sickness.

A pregnant woman
Symptoms of hyperemesis gravidarum include nausea, vomiting and dehydration. Here's what it's like to go through pregnancy with the condition. (Getty Images)

The weekend of my 40th birthday, at 31 weeks pregnant, I was hospitalized with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). HG is a pregnancy-specific condition involving severe nausea and vomiting. I stood in the foyer of admitting, simultaneously throwing up and peeing my pants with every heave. This was my second hospitalization in two months. Readmission is quite common in HG cases.

I had been sick throughout my first pregnancy, but nowhere to this degree, and because HG diagnoses are considered rare (up to 2%), I chalked up my first round with it to be normal morning sickness, despite it lasting all day and throughout my pregnancy. I even wrote an essay for the parenting site Scary Mommy in which I asked why everyone kept saying the second trimester was a breeze, whereas I only felt increasingly ill.

But it was my second pregnancy — the one in which I already had an energetic toddler at home and was teaching yoga online multiple times a week — that sent me over the edge. For nearly 10 months, I threw up from morning to night. I could barely get out of bed some days. I was also incontinent, as vomiting placed pressure on my already-taxed-thanks-to-baby-number-one pelvic floor.

I didn’t know anything about the condition prior to the comedian Amy Schumer sharing her experience. In 2019, Schumer unabashedly posted videos and pictures of herself throwing up out of car doors and lying in hospital beds. She even documented these raw aspects in her 2020 HBO Max series, Expecting Amy, which, notably, does not say “hyperemesis gravidarum” in its description. Mom of three Kate Middleton is another well-known example, and was hospitalized for HG during her first pregnancy; "I was really sick," the Princess of Wales has said of the experience.

Despite Schumer’s vulnerability allowing bystanders to laugh a bit, the condition is no laughing matter. In fact, it can be exceedingly dangerous and in some rare instances, fatal. It is not the nausea or vomiting themselves that are most devastating, but the potential complications, including electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition, weight loss, severe fatigue and increased risks of preterm labor, low birth, stillbirth and more. There are also financial repercussions, like job loss and medical costs for those overwhelmed by their symptoms — not to mention the mental health toll.

There were days where I could not get out of bed due to bone-crushing fatigue. I was privileged in that I had a flexible job teaching yoga online, and my husband’s income could support the family when I missed work. If I had a full-time job or had been a solo parent, I’m honestly not sure what I would have done. Though HG is considered a temporary condition (for many it goes away upon birth), people’s families can be deeply affected. I don’t know what was worse: being stuck on a toilet vomiting and peeing simultaneously for hours on end, or hearing my toddler crying for mama behind the closed door.

Another undiscussed aspect is the difficulty getting proper medical support. In addition to fighting the urge to throw up, I felt like I was fighting the medical system. HG is believed to be rare, with most studies claiming that only 0.3-2% of pregnant people experience the condition. But the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation observes on its website that when we look at excessive vomiting and nausea, and the amount of people on antiemetics (anti-nausea medications), the numbers are much higher. I wasn’t diagnosed until nearly halfway through my pregnancy, and it was due to my severe dehydration, not my incessant vomiting.

Dr. Peggy Roberts of Trust Women's Healthcare, a medical practice in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose mission is to decrease racial and health disparities in women's health, hypothesizes that one reason HG may be under-diagnosed is that patients, and even some providers, mistake the symptoms with typical morning sickness. Roberts told Yahoo Life that in low-risk pregnancies, people may only see their doctor every four weeks, which can delay a diagnosis.

A recent joint study from USC and the University of Cambridge seems to have identified the cause of hyperemesis gravidarum to be an increase in the hormone GDF15. There is also evidence that early exposure to the hormone can help decrease HG symptoms. While promising, change in women’s health care can be slow.

Overall, HG is a lonely and stressful condition. Here are some things I did to support myself that you might consider doing, if you suspect you have it:

  • Advocate for yourself: You know your body best. If you suspect your nausea and vomiting are beyond normal morning sickness, find someone who will listen. People can switch care providers up to and even including during birth. Roberts also suggests bringing a support person to your appointments who can help you remember important questions and advocate for you.

  • Remember that this is temporary: While it may not feel like it while it’s happening, this debilitating condition has a silver lining in that it is pregnancy-specific. Michigan-based mom Megan Ludke found knowing there was an end in sight to be helpful during her second HG pregnancy. I threw up during both of my births, but my nausea significantly improved after the babies were fully delivered. That said, there are still some days in which, if I haven’t eaten enough, I feel a wave of sickness as though I was pregnant again.

  • Ask for support from your community: Don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help during this time, especially if you have other children who need tending. Having to care for a toddler while also going through her second HG pregnancy was one of the hardest things Ludke has ever had to go through, even with support from her husband. I second that emotion. Unfortunately, many suffering from the condition don’t have that option.

Ultimately, HG’s impact goes beyond the birthing parent. The more awareness we can cultivate around this condition, the more resources — such as paid job leave, affordable child care and accessible treatments — may be available to those who are suffering.

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