What Is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that happens in about 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies. It is a hypertensive disorder, meaning it is characterized by high blood pressure. Preeclampsia doesn’t normally develop until about the 20th week of pregnancy, and it can last for up to six weeks after you give birth. Without proper treatment, preeclampsia can be dangerous to both mother and baby.

What Are the Symptoms of Preeclampsia?

High blood pressure and protein in your urine are the classic signs of preeclampsia, and your obstetrician will check for these at every visit during your pregnancy. But there are other warning signs you should be aware of and bring to the attention of your doctor. These symptoms include:

  • Headache that won’t go away: If you’ve tried taking pain relievers and still feel intense, migraine-like pain (possibly including sensitivity to light and vision changes), call your doctor immediately.
  • Swelling: Some amount of water retention is normal during pregnancy, but swelling that comes on suddenly may be a cause for concern.
  • Sudden weight gain: If you gain more than two pounds in a week, it may be caused by the excess water retention that’s a symptom of preeclampsia.
  • Vision changes: Sudden vision changes – such as sensitivity to light, auras, flashing or blurriness – are signs of severe preeclampsia. If you experience these symptoms, call your doctor immediately or go straight to the emergency room.
  • Abdominal, right shoulder or low back pain: Pain in any of these areas can be caused by problems with your liver (a symptom of HELLP syndrome, a condition related to preeclampsia).

What Causes Preeclampsia?

Despite advances in research, the exact cause of preeclampsia is still not known. But there are certain risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing the condition. These include:

  • Being pregnant for the first time
  • Having preeclampsia during a prior pregnancy
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having diabetes
  • Being obese
  • Carrying twins, triplets or other multiples
  • Being 40 years old or older

What Are the Complications of Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia can advance to more serious conditions and cause other complications for both mother and baby. These include:

  • Eclampsia: Eclampsia is a severe complication of preeclampsia that causes seizures. Seizures during pregnancy or in the first weeks after giving birth are potentially life-threatening symptoms. Because of advancements in recognizing and treating preeclampsia, eclampsia is rare in developed countries. If you experience an eclamptic seizure, you will be hospitalized and given magnesium sulfate along with intravenous fluids.
  • HELLP syndrome: HELLP is an acronym that stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet counts. This condition can seriously affect your liver, your red blood cells and platelets.
  • Low birth weight baby: Because preeclampsia affects blood flow to the placenta, it can result in the birth of smaller, possibly premature, babies.

How Is Preeclampsia Treated?

The only true cure for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby and placenta. If the mother or baby’s health is in serious danger, your doctor may recommend delivering immediately. But unless you are already close to your due date, the preferred treatment is to control and monitor the condition until your baby is developed enough for a healthy delivery. At Baptist Health, we successfully treat many women with preeclampsia every year. Treatments may include:

  • Bed rest to help keep blood pressure down
  • More frequent testing to monitor your condition
  • Blood pressure medication
  • A low-salt diet
  • Drinking more fluids

What Is the Prognosis for Future Pregnancies?

In most cases, preeclampsia resolves itself within 48 hours of your baby’s birth. Having the condition during one pregnancy increases your risk of developing it if you become pregnant again. Your doctor will want to monitor you more closely during any future pregnancies. He or she may also recommend taking a daily low-dose aspirin while trying to get pregnant or as soon as you become pregnant to help reduce your risk.

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