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Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a condition characterized by a sudden rise of blood pressure during or right after pregnancy. It is very serious and can cause death if not treated. Preeclampsia affects up to 6% of pregnancies and, can become severe in rare cases (about 1-2% of pregnancies). It is essential to watch for symptoms of preeclampsia so that your care provider can start treatment as early as possible.

What are the Warning Signs of Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia commonly occurs during the last trimester of pregnancy but can happen any time after the 20th week. Signs of preeclampsia include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Severe headache or a headache that will not go away
  • Blurry vision or seeing spots
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Swelling in your face or hands
  • Infrequent or small amounts of urinating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in your shoulder or upper abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting after 20 weeks of pregnancy
  • Sudden weight gain

Am I at risk for preeclampsia?

Any pregnant woman can develop preeclampsia, even if they appear to be otherwise perfectly healthy. There are some women however, that are more likely to get preeclampsia. Risk factors for preeclampsia include:

  • First time pregnancies.
  • Pregnancies with more than one baby.
  • Obesity. High blood pressure.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Diabetes.
  • Autoimmune diseases.
  • Being younger than 20 or older than 35.
  • Family history of preeclampsia (mother or sister).
  • Use of in vitro fertilization, donor insemination, or egg donation.
  • Being African American.
  • Preeclampsia in previous pregnancies  

What health problems can preeclampsia cause?

Preeclampsia can cause multiple health problems for both mother and baby.

Problems for mother can include:

  • Organ damage, especially kidneys, liver, or brain.
  • Greater risk of heart disease.
  • Eclampsia (a disorder that can impact brain function and cause a seizure or coma).
  • Placental abruption (separation of the placenta from the uterus).
  • HELLP syndrome (a disorder that can cause blood and liver damage- this is rare)

Problems for baby can include:

  • Preterm birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Stillbirth  

How can I find out if I have preeclampsia?

During each of your prenatal visits, your care provider will check your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is 140/90 or more during more than one check, that could signal preeclampsia. Your care provider can also tell if you have preeclampsia with tests that look at protein levels in your urine.

How do you treat preeclampsia?

Treatment for preeclampsia depends on how far along you are in your pregnancy. If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, you will be watched closely by your care provider and may be given medication if needed. If you are 37 weeks or farther along in your pregnancy, your care provider will usually suggest to deliver your baby. Doing this usually helps your body return back to normal. In some rare cases preeclampsia can occur after delivery. Treatment for post-partum preeclampsia includes monitoring and medication to lower your blood pressure.

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Updated on March 18, 2021

References:American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Gestational Hypertension and Preeclampsia. Practice Bulletin (222). Published September 2020.American Pregnancy Association. Preeclampsia. Updated September 20, 2020.MedlinePlus. High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy. Published December 12, 2018. Updated August 14, 2020.