By the time Suzanne Franklin gave birth to a whopping 10 pound, 2 ounce baby this past Christmas she was already familiar with the concept of super sizing. Due to her severe food allergies, the British mom-to-be decided early on in her pregnancy that she would only eat McDonald's Big Macs.
It was Bic Macs, three meals a day for nine months. And hold the pickles, lettuce and cheese because she is allergic to them, along with vegetables, milk, peanuts and dozens of other foods.
Franklin's two-all-beef-patties diet may seem a bit extreme, but doctors warned her that her allergies would likely exacerbate during pregnancy if she didn't avoid her triggers. It's common for pregnant women to experience worsening allergy symptoms or even spontaneously develop them despite having no issues beforehand. A quarter of pregnant women suffer from true allergies and up to 30 percent experience an allergy-like condition known as pregnancy rhinitis characterized by a perpetually stuffy, runny nose and itchy, red eyes.
Laura Corio, M.D., an Ob/Gyn who practices in Manhattan, says symptoms can vary with each pregnancy. A woman who is plagued by dust mites and cat dander while carrying her first child might have no issues the next time around. "The trouble usually starts in the second trimester and gets progressively worse as the pregnancy progresses," she explains.
The reason for all the sneezing, coughing and itching isn't entirely understood. Corio believes the pregnancy hormone progesterone may be partly to blame because it increases breathing frequency. A burgeoning belly complicates matters by pushing up on the diaphragm making it even more difficult for the expectant mother to expand her lungs. To compensate, many women begin breathing through their mouth. Without the benefit of the nose's filtration system, more allergens are able to sneak into the body.
Raging hormone levels also weaken the immune system. While this helps reduce the odds of a miscarriage, it also increases susceptibility to allergies. "With compromised immunity, the body isn't always able to combat allergy irritants as well as it normally would," Corio says. "This can cause stronger allergic reactions than usual."
Medication can offer relief and the majority of medical experts don't consider them totally off limits to pregnant women, though many caution the importance of weighing the risks against the benefits. Corio for one, doesn't prescribe antihistamines to her patients with child because there's a chance they will compromise blood flow to both mother and baby.
Many commonly prescribed medications haven't been shown to cause harm but they haven't been declared entirely risk-free either. For example, Claritin is classed as "category B" drug by the FDA. This means it's been safely tested on animals but there may not be sufficient evidence to guarantee its safety during human pregnancy. According to the FDA, no drug is considered completely safe to take during pregnancy.