Mineka Furtch wasn’t bothered by the idea of morning sickness after going through a miscarriage and the roller coaster of fertility medication before she finally became pregnant with her son.
But when the 29-year-old from suburban Atlanta was five weeks pregnant in 2020, she started throwing up and couldn’t stop. Some days she kept down an orange; other days, nothing. Furtch used up her paid time off at work with sick days, eventually having to rely on unpaid medical leave. She remembered her doctor telling her it was just morning sickness and things would get better.
By the time Furtch was 13 weeks pregnant, she had lost more than 20 pounds.
“I fought so hard to have this baby, and I was fighting so hard to keep this baby,” Furtch said. “I was like ‘OK, something is not right here.’”
Now, Furtch’s son is 18 months old, and she is suffering again from severe nausea and vomiting well into the second trimester of a new, unplanned pregnancy.
The nausea that comes with morning sickness is common in the first trimester of pregnancy, but some women, like Furtch, experience symptoms that linger much longer and require medical attention. However, they often go untreated or undertreated because the condition is misunderstood or downplayed by their doctors or the patients themselves.
Mothers have said they went without care for fear that medicine would hurt their fetus, because they couldn’t afford it, or because their doctor didn’t take them seriously. Left alone, symptoms get more difficult to control, and such delays can become medical emergencies. Extreme cases are called hyperemesis gravidarum and may last throughout a pregnancy, even with treatment.
“For most women, it’s not until they end up in the ER and go, ‘Well, most of my friends haven’t been to an ER,’ they realize this isn’t normal,” said Kimber MacGibbon, executive director of the Her Foundation, which researches and raises awareness of hyperemesis gravidarum.
There are a lot of unknowns around the cause of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. Research has indicated that genetics plays a role in its severity, and hyperemesis is estimated to occur in up to 3% of pregnancies. But there’s no clear line differentiating morning sickness from hyperemesis or consistent criteria to diagnose the condition, which MacGibbon said results in underestimating its impact.
Wide-ranging estimates suggest at least 60,000 people — possibly 300,000 or more — go to a hospital in the U.S. each year with pregnancy-related dehydration or malnourishment. An untold number go to walk-in clinics or don’t seek medical care.
The effects ripple into every aspect of a person’s life and the economy. One study estimated the total annual economic burden of severe morning sickness and hyperemesis in the US in 2012 amounted to more than $1.7 billion in lost work, caregiver time and the cost of treatment.
Research for this article was personal. I’m pregnant, and by the fifth week I was vomiting five to seven times a day. My