Health Risks

Written by Tracy Stickler | Published on December 17, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP on December 17, 2014

Risk Factors

Every pregnancy carries its risks. But good prenatal care and support can help minimize those risks. Factors like age and overall health status can increase a woman’s chances of experiencing complications during pregnancy.

Reproductive Abnormalities

Structural problems in a woman's uterus or cervix heighten the risk of difficulties like miscarriage, an abnormally positioned fetus, and difficult labor. These problems also increase the risk of a cesarean delivery.   

Age

Age is one of the most common factors that can add risk to a woman's pregnancy.

Young Women

Women under the age of 20 have a significantly higher risk of serious medical complications related to pregnancy than those over 20. Children born to teenage mothers are more likely to:

  • deliver prematurely
  • have a low birth weight
  • develop placenta previa
  • experience pregnancy-induced hypertension
  • contract toxemia

Some risk factors connected to young age include the following.

  • underdeveloped pelvis: Young women's bodies are still growing and changing. An underdeveloped pelvis can lead to difficulties during childbirth. 
  • nutritional deficiencies: Young women are more likely to have poor eating habits. Nutritional deficiency can lead to extra strain on the body that causes more complications for both the mother and child.
  • high blood pressure: High blood pressure can trigger premature labor. This can lead to premature or underweight babies who require specialized care to survive.

Women Over 35

As a woman ages, her chances of conceiving begins to decline. An older woman who becomes pregnant is also less likely to have a problem-free pregnancy. Common issues include the following:

  • underlying conditions: Older women are more likely to have conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease that can complicate pregnancy. When these conditions are not well controlled they can contribute to miscarriage, poor fetal growth, and birth defects.
  • chromosomal problems: A woman over 35 has a higher risk of having a child with birth defects due to chromosomal issues. Down syndrome is the most common birth defect related to chromosomes. It causes varying degrees of mental retardation and physical abnormalities. Prenatal screening and tests can help determine the likelihood of chromosomal complications.
  • miscarriage. A woman age 35–39 is more likely to have a miscarriage than a woman in her 20s. According to the Mayo Clinic, a woman has about 20 percent risk of miscarriage at age 35. She has 80 percent risk of miscarriage at age 45.
  • other complications: Women over 35 are more likely to have complications commonly associated with pregnancy regardless of age. 

Weight

Obesity

Women who are obese are at a higher risk than normal-weight women of having babies with some birth defects, including spina bifida, heart problems, hydrocephaly, and cleft palate and lip. Obese women are also more likely to be diagnosed with gestational diabetes during the pregnancy. Obese women are also more likely to have high blood pressure. This can lead to a smaller than expected baby as well as increase the risk for pre-eclampsia and toxemia.

Underweight

Women who weigh less than 100 pounds are more likely to deliver prematurely or give birth to an underweight baby.

Diabetes

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetics may experience complications during pregnancy. Poor control of diabetes can increase the chances of birth defects in the baby, and can cause health concerns for the mother.

Some women who may not have had diabetes before the pregnancy may be diagnosed with diabetic symptoms during pregnancy. This is called gestational diabetes. Any woman diagnosed with gestational diabetes should talk with her doctor about the specific recommendations to control her blood sugar. Dietary changes will be recommended. You will also be advised to monitor your blood sugar levels.

Some women may have to take insulin to control their blood sugar levels. Women who have gestational diabetes are at much higher risk for developing diabetes after their pregnancy is over. Testing for diabetes once the pregnancy is over is recommended.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Every pregnant woman should be screened for STIs during her first prenatal visit. A woman who has an STI is very likely to transmit it to her baby. Depending on the infection, a baby born to a woman with an STI is at a higher risk for:

  • low birth weight
  • conjunctivitis
  • pneumonia
  • neonatal sepsis (infection in the baby’s blood stream)
  • neurologic damage
  • blindness
  • deafness
  • acute hepatitis
  • meningitis
  • chronic liver disease
  • cirrhosis

Multiple Pregnancies

A woman who has had five or more previous pregnancies is more susceptible to abnormally quick labor and accompanying excessive blood loss during future labors.

Multiple-Birth Pregnancies

Complications arise in multiple birth pregnancies because more than one baby is growing in the womb. Because of the limited amount of space and the additional strain multiple fetuses put on a woman, these babies are more likely to arrive prematurely. Many pregnancy complications, like high blood pressure and diabetes, are more common in multiple pregnancies.

Previous Complications with Pregnancy

If a woman has had complications in a previous pregnancy, she may be more likely to have the same complication in subsequent pregnancies.

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