Most women have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. But sometimes things can go wrong. A woman can have complications that can cause problems for her and her baby. Rarely, these complications are so severe that they cause a woman’s death.
Maternal death (also called pregnancy-related death) is when a woman dies during pregnancy or within a year after pregnancy from health problems related to pregnancy or childbirth. Maternal death is rare in the United States. In this country, there are about 4 million births and about 650 maternal deaths each year.
Getting regular health care before, during and after pregnancy can help you stay healthy and help prevent maternal death. If you’re planning pregnancy, get a preconception checkup to take care of any health problems you may have before you get pregnant. During pregnancy, get early and regular prenatal care. Getting regular prenatal care lets your health care provider spot and treat health problems that may affect your pregnancy. After you give birth, keep an eye out for warning signs of health problems, including infections and bleeding, that could become dangerous.
What kinds of health problems can cause maternal death?
In the United States, these health problems are common causes of maternal death:
- Cardiovascular diseases, like stroke and high blood pressure. These diseases affect your heart and blood vessels. During pregnancy, you have nearly twice as much blood moving through your body than you did before pregnancy. This means your heart has to work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body.
Stroke happens when a blood clot (a mass or clump of blood) blocks a blood vessel that brings blood to the brain, or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts open. Changes in hormones (chemicals made by the body) during pregnancy and childbirth may increase your chances of having a stroke. Pregnancy and childbirth cause strokes in about 8 in 100,000 women. Stroke can cause lasting damage to the body or death.
High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is when the force of blood that pushes against the walls of your arteries is too high. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart to the body. Without treatment, high blood pressure can lead to stroke or heart failure. Heart failure is when the heart can’t pump enough blood. Your health care provider takes your blood pressure at each prenatal care checkup to make sure your blood pressure is healthy.
Preeclampsia is a condition that can happen after the 20th week of pregnancy or right after pregnancy. It’s when a pregnant woman has high blood pressure and signs that some of her organs, like her kidneys and liver, may not be working properly. Some of these signs include having protein in the urine, changes in vision and severe headache. Without treatment, preeclampsia can cause serious health problems. Sometimes it becomes a life-threatening condition called eclampsia. Eclampsia is when a pregnant woman has seizures following preeclampsia.
- Amniotic fluid embolism. This is a very rare condition that usually happens during or right after a tough labor and birth. It happens when some of your baby’s cells, hair or amniotic fluid (fluid that surrounds your baby in the uterus) get into your bloodstream and move to your lungs. This can cause the arteries in your lungs to become narrow. This can cause problems, including a fast heart rate, irregular heartbeat, heart attack or death.
- Anesthesia problems. Anesthesia is medicine that lessens or prevents pain. Your provider may give you anesthesia during labor and birth. Most women don’t have problems from anesthesia, but some react differently to it. If you’re given too much anesthesia, it may affect your breathing, heartbeat or blood pressure. Tell your provider before you go into labor if you’ve had problems with anesthesia in the past.
- Heart muscle diseases (also called cardiomyopathy). These diseases make your heart larger, thicker or more rigid (stiff) than normal. Sometimes these diseases make the heart weaker, so that it can’t pump blood well. They can lead to problems, like heart failure, irregular heartbeat or fluid buildup in your lungs or legs.
- Hemorrhage (also called heavy bleeding). Hemorrhage can be deadly if your provider can’t stop it. Preterm labor and placental problems (like placental abruption) can cause heavy bleeding during pregnancy. Preterm labor is labor that happens too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Placental abruption is when the placenta separates from the uterus (womb) before birth. The placenta grows in your uterus and supplies the baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord. Heavy bleeding after birth can happen if your vagina or cervix (opening to the uterus) is cut or torn during birth, or if your uterus doesn’t contract (tighten) after birth.
- Infection. An infection is a sickness you get from bad germs. Some infections can lead to deadly illness. In rare cases, pregnant women who have group B strep (an infection from bacteria) may develop sepsis (blood infection). Sepsis can overwhelm the body’s immune system and may lead to severe problems and even death. For example, sepsis sometimes leads to small blood clots that block blood flow to your vital organs, like your brain, heart and kidneys. This can cause organ failure and death.
- Pulmonary embolism (also called PE). This is a blood clot that blocks an artery in the lung. It usually happens when a blood clot in the leg called deep vein thrombosis (also called DVT) breaks loose and travels to the lung. PE can cause low oxygen levels in your blood. If your organs don’t get enough oxygen, they may become damaged. PE is an emergency and can be deadly. After giving birth, your provider may want you to get up and walk around as soon as you can. This can help prevent DVT and PE.
See also: Your checkup before pregnancy, Your first prenatal care checkup, Warning signs after birth
Last reviewed: July, 2013