How Can You Tell the Difference?

When you’re trying to get pregnant, that two-week window between ovulation and a potential positive…

How Can You Tell the Difference?

When you’re trying to get pregnant, that two-week window between ovulation and a potential positive pregnancy test — or your period — can be nerve-wracking. Every month, you may wonder if this month is going to be the month — or just your time of the month again.

Unfortunately, the early signs of pregnancy and PMS are very similar, which can make it hard to tell what’s causing those sore boobs and strange food cravings.

Can you tell the difference between PMS and pregnancy?

Unfortunately, no. The only way to know for sure that you’re pregnant is to take a pregnancy test.

The good news is you don’t have to wait too long to find out: Home pregnancy tests are accurate enough now to pick up 90 percent of pregnancies the day of your expected period. (While some test manufacturers claim they can give you results as early as four or five days before your expected period, they’re only accurate about 60 percent of the time, which means if your result is negative, you should wait and retest to see if it’s the real deal.)

These home pregnancy tests all work by measuring levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) — a developing-placenta-produced hormone of pregnancy — in your pee. Although some hCG is in your urine as early as a week after conception, it’s usually not enough to register on a home pregnancy test. (If your period is irregular, wait the number of days equal to the longest cycle you’ve had in the last six months — and then test.)

Any positive test should be followed up by your health practitioner, who can confirm the result with a blood test.

Symptoms of PMS vs. symptoms of pregnancy

The second half of your menstrual cycle is known as the luteal phase, when your body produces more progesterone, a hormone key sustaining an early pregnancy. These levels peak about a week after ovulation, even if you don’t become pregnant.

But high levels of this hormone can cause both physical and emotional changes, causing similar symptoms whether you’re in early pregnancy or right about to have a period. These include:

  • Breast tenderness
  • Bloating
  • Food cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Moodiness
  • Constipation
  • Increased nipple sensitivity
  • Headaches and muscle aches

But there are also specific symptoms that tend to indicate pregnancy, rather than PMS. Look for:

  • Changes in your areolas. Breast changes caused by pregnancy hormones such as tenderness or sensitivity tend to stick around rather than disappear shortly before the arrival of your period. Another tell-tale sign: your areolas — the circles around your nipples — darken in color and increase in diameter. You may also see an enlargement in the tiny bumps normally on your areola (so that they resemble goosebumps). These bumps are glands that produce oils to lubricate your nipples and areolas in prep for eventual nursing.
  • Implantation bleeding. Another sign that you might be pregnant is spotting that shows up anywhere from a few days to a week before the day you normally get your period. This is known as implantation bleeding, and around 20 to 30 percent of newly expectant moms experience it when the embryo burrows into the uterine wall. Implanatation bleeding is usually much lighter than a period, and can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Unlike your period, implantation bleeding isn’t red: It’s usually pale to medium pink or light brown in color — sometimes even pink-tinged mucus.
  • Peeing all the time. The need to constantly pee can happen as early as four weeks after conception. That’s because pregnant kidneys must work overtime to filter extra waste from the blood (so you have to go to the bathroom more). Your uterus has also begun to grow, and may be pressing squarely on your bladder, triggering that gotta-go feeling.
  • Smell sensitivity. Some newly pregnant women report that their sniffer’s suddenly more sensitive, which is due to the increasing amount of estrogen coursing through your body during early pregnancy. A heightened sense of smell can appear in the first trimester.

When to see a doctor

Even if you don’t have a positive pregnancy test, you should see your doctor (or at least call them) if your period runs more than a week or two late. Your OB/GYN can run a blood test to check for pregnancy, as well as other blood tests to look for hormone abnormalities such as a thyroid disorder that could mess up your menstrual cycle and even be causing some of your physical and mental symptoms.

And remember, you can have every single pregnancy symptom on the book and not be pregnant, or virtually no symptoms and have successfully conceived. That’s why it’s so important to wait — and follow up with your medical provider if you’re uncertain about results.