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Is Diarrhea a Symptom of Pregnancy?

Self logo Self 5/18/2022 Korin Miller
Diarrhea isn't necessarily a symptom of pregnancy. © pepifoto / Getty Images Diarrhea isn't necessarily a symptom of pregnancy.

When you’re trying to conceive, it’s understandable to hope that sudden bodily changes indicate that it’s finally happened. You may wonder, “Is diarrhea a symptom of pregnancy?” if you’re now hitting up the bathroom all the time. The answer isn’t so straightforward.

“Pregnancy can affect your bowel movements, but it’s also common to just get diarrhea for other reasons,” Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, tells SELF.

But your bathroom habits may clue you into the state of your G.I. tract and uterus. Let’s dive in.

What is diarrhea? | Is diarrhea a symptom of early pregnancy? | Does morning sickness cause diarrhea? | What are early symptoms of pregnancy? | When to talk to your doctor about diarrhea during pregnancy? | How to feel better if you have diarrhea during pregnancy

What is diarrhea, exactly?

Diarrhea is basically poop hell. But more technically speaking, it’s defined as loose, watery bowel movements that occur three or more times in a day, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). It usually lasts just a day or two which is called acute diarrhea. (Diarrhea that lasts longer than a few days may signal a more serious problem, as can diarrhea lasting a few weeks, called chronic diarrhea1.)

Ever wonder what’s actually going on in your body to make your butt expel its contents so violently? There are a few different potential mechanisms, depending on the underlying cause (of which there are many, which we’ll get to). But generally speaking, diarrhea occurs when your digestive system fails to remove enough water from your stool, Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. That commonly happens when stool moves too quickly through the digestive tract, as Merck Manuals explains, or when your stool is diluted by excess water secreted by the intestines.

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Is diarrhea a symptom of early pregnancy?

The answer is going to take a sec, so pull up a seat.

Your hormones fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle, and you might know that these hormonal changes can make your poop real weird around the time of your period2. That’s largely thanks to a hormone that helps prep your body for pregnancy called progesterone.

Progesterone levels increase after ovulation, anticipating that the egg your ovaries just released will be fertilized, the NLM explains. If you don’t become pregnant, progesterone levels fall back down, and you get your period. If the egg is fertilized and you do become pregnant, your levels of progesterone will continue to rise, Mary Rosser, MD, PhD, an ob-gyn at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells SELF.

How does this early pregnancy progesterone surge affect poop? Progesterone helps relax the smooth muscles, like your uterus and intestines. While relaxed intestines might sound like a recipe for the loose, speedy bowel movements that characterize diarrhea, that isn’t what actually happens. In fact, without your G.I. muscles contracting as hard to move things along, food passage starts to slow down and bowel movements become sluggish, G. Thomas Ruiz, MD, an ob-gyn at Memorial Care Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF.

In other words, high levels of progesterone result in constipation, i.e. the exact opposite of diarrhea. Many people experience constipation in early pregnancy3, so diarrhea really isn’t an accurate sign of early pregnancy, Dr. Rosser says.

Total caveat alert: some people have the opposite reaction.“While constipation is more common in early pregnancy, sometimes the hormonal changes in pregnancy impact people differently and result in diarrhea,” Dr. Greves says. What’s more, some people may be pregnant and crave foods that don’t agree with them, which can lead to diarrhea, Dr. Greves says. For instance, maybe you are lactose intolerant but can’t get enough cheese.

Of course, diarrhea can happen for other reasons completely unrelated to growing a baby. One super common cause is a stomach bug, which is caused by consuming food contaminated with parasites, bacteria, or viruses4, Dr. Rosser says. But numerous other things can lead to loose stool, including bacteria-contaminated food or water, viruses (like the flu or norovirus), parasites, certain medications (like antibiotics), and food intolerances, according to the NLM. (And sometimes, the cause is a mystery, but that’s typically NBD if it goes away after a couple days.)

That’s why Dr. Ruiz compares looking at diarrhea as an early sign (or not) of pregnancy to trying to read tea leaves. Basically, you’re going to see what you want to see. At the end of the day, no single symptom is a foolproof sign that you’re pregnant. So even though it’s tempting to interpret every weird body thing as a sign that you’re expecting, a missed period and positive pregnancy test are really the best indicators that you might be pregnant.

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Does morning sickness cause diarrhea?

Diarrhea is caused by so many things and you can get loose stools anytime regardless of pregnancy, Dr. Greves says. Bottom line: There isn’t a particular pregnancy stage that causes diarrhea.

Of course, if you’re keeping an eagle eye on your symptoms early on, you might wonder if diarrhea can be a form of morning sickness. That is iffy, Dr. Greves says.

Morning sickness, which consists of nausea and vomiting, usually starts within six weeks of gestation. Generally, it goes away by 20 weeks of pregnancy5. However, it can last longer and even stretch through a person’s entire pregnancy.

The exact cause of morning sickness isn’t entirely known, but it’s thought to be brought on by—go figure—hormonal changes, the Mayo Clinic says.

Symptoms usually include nausea and vomiting and, while it’s easy to lump diarrhea into that category of “stuff that happens that makes you feel lousy,” it’s not technically a symptom of morning sickness. “I really haven’t seen diarrhea as a sign of morning sickness,” Dr. Greves says.

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Are stomach pain and cramps normal in early pregnancy?

Abdominal pain and discomfort can occur throughout pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic. As your uterus grows, you may experience sharp, shooting pains on either side of the stomach.

In the second trimester, something called round ligament pain becomes more common (though it can also happen earlier), which causes a pulling sensation or cramps on either side of the uterus, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This is because there is a rope-like ligament, called the round ligament, on each side of the uterus. The uterus and round ligaments stretch as the fetus grows in the womb6. The pain and cramping may be particularly prevalent when a person coughs, laughs, or sneezes.

While abdominal pain, discomfort, and cramping are very normal during pregnancy, if pain is ever severe or persistent, call your doctor to rule out other potential causes.

What are other early signs of pregnancy?

Every person and every pregnancy is different, Dr. Greves says. But there are a few common early signs of pregnancy to have on your radar, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • You miss a period
  • Your breasts feel swollen or tender
  • You’re nauseated, which may lead to vomiting
  • You pee more frequently than you typically do
  • You feel wiped out
  • You have mood swings or feel moody
  • You experience bloating
  • You have spotting around the time of your period
  • You have bouts of mild cramps
  • You’re constipated
  • Your food preferences change
  • You have nasal congestion
  • You have a heightened sense of smell

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When should you talk to your doctor about diarrhea during pregnancy?

If you know you’re pregnant and randomly have diarrhea once or twice, there’s no reason to stress about it, Dr. Greves says. But if you’ve been chained to the toilet for two or more days, it’s time to consult your doctor. “Most of the time, it will just clear up,” Dr. Greves says. But your doctor may ask you for a stool sample to test for any infections or viruses that could be leading to your diarrhea.

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How to feel better if you have diarrhea during pregnancy

While you may simply reach for antidiarrheal medication when you’re not pregnant, most of them aren’t recommended when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

That’s why Dr. Greves recommends making some lifestyle tweaks first to see if they help. That can include eating bland foods, following the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast), and drinking lots of fluids to help you avoid getting dehydrated.

Again, if it’s been two days and you’re not getting better or you’ve noticed new symptoms like blood in your poop and/or a fever, it’s important to contact your doctor. They’ll likely want to test you to see what’s going on and—most importantly—to help you feel better ASAP.

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Sources:

  1. Gastroenterology, Pathophysiology, Evaluation, and Management of Chronic Watery Diarrhea
  2. BMC Women’s Health, Stool Frequency and Form and Gastrointestinal Symptoms Differ By Day of the Menstrual Cycle in Healthy Adult Women Taking Oral Contraceptives
  3. Cochrane Library, Interventions for Treating Constipation in Pregnancy
  4. AIMS Microbiology, Foodborne Pathogens
  5. Maternal & Child Nutrition, Nausea and Vomiting in Early Pregnancy: Effects on Food Intake and Diet Quality
  6. StatPearls, Anatomy, Abdomen and Pelvis, Uterus Round Ligament

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