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Preeclampsia and Your Pregnancy

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

What is Preeclampsia?

Learn about pre-eclampsia complicating your pregnancy.

Preeclampsia is high blood pressure and excess protein in the urine during the second half of pregnancy. It happens in 5–8% of pregnancies in the U.S. Doctors believe it is caused by abnormally small blood vessels leading to the placenta. This causes your blood pressure to rise, which can create problems for your health and that of your baby. Less blood flow to organs may cause your kidneys to release too much protein, which can be checked with a simple urine test.

Preeclampsia often develops toward the end of pregnancy, but some women may develop signs before 34 weeks. Blood pressure and protein in the urine usually increases gradually. This is why your healthcare provider will check your blood pressure and urine protein at each prenatal care visit once you are 20 weeks along or more.

Can Preeclampsia be Prevented?

There are no known ways to predict or prevent preeclampsia. It is not caused by diet, exercise, or other choices you make. However, diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle do contribute to some of the risk factors for preeclampsia (like diabetes and obesity). In general, leading a healthy lifestyle may improve your general health and potentially decrease your eventual risk of preeclampsia. It is also important to keep all of your prenatal care visits so that you can detect preeclampsia as early as possible—before it causes problems.

Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is diagnosed with two simple tests: a blood pressure check and a urine protein test. If your blood pressure is greater than or equal to 140/90 and your urine test shows high levels of protein, you will likely be diagnosed with preeclampsia. Some women never experience symptoms of preeclampsia. Other women with preeclampsia may experience signs and symptoms that can include:

  • severe, persistent headaches

  • changes in vision (blurriness, squiggly lines, spots, loss of sight)

  • nausea or vomiting

  • pain in the upper belly

  • swelling in the face, hands, or feet

  • decreased urination

  • abnormal results on tests for kidney function, liver function, lung fluid, platelet counts, or blood cell health

  • placental abruption (when the placenta detaches from the uterus), which causes vaginal bleeding, pain, and decreased movement of the baby

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, tell your healthcare provider. Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have preeclampsia, though. You may experience some of these symptoms during pregnancy even if you do not have preeclampsia.

Who is at Risk for Preeclampsia?

Every pregnant woman is technically considered at risk for preeclampsia. However, the condition is very rare. You are more likely to develop preeclampsia if any of the following are true:

  • This is your first pregnancy.

  • You have had preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy.

  • Your mother or sisters have had preeclampsia.

  • You are pregnant with more than one baby.

  • You have gestational diabetes.

  • You had high blood pressure, lupus, kidney problems, or diabetes prior to pregnancy.

  • You are a teenager or over 35.

  • You are obese.

What are the Dangers of Preeclampsia?

Most women who have preeclampsia only have mild symptoms. Other women develop dangerously high blood pressure that requires medications, hospital monitoring, or emergency delivery of the baby.

High blood pressure and protein in the urine can have serious consequences if they are not caught and treated early. If preeclampsia is mild, there is little danger to the mother or the baby. If blood pressure continues to rise or spikes suddenly, it can become dangerous for the mother and the baby.

Potential risks to the mother include:

  • stroke

  • seizures (if a seizure takes place, the condition is then called eclampsia)

  • emergency surgery (C-Section)

  • drug complications or interactions

  • high blood pressure for days to weeks after having the baby

Potential risks to the baby include:

  • restricted growth in the womb

  • less protective fluid in the amniotic sac

  • preterm birth and its related problems (such as low birth weight or immature lungs)

Treating Your Preeclampsia

Depending on the severity of your preeclampsia, your treatment for preeclampsia will vary. If you have only mild preeclampsia, your doctor may just tell you to take it easy and keep all of your appointments for check-ups. If you have more serious symptoms (especially when the baby is not near term), you may need to go on bed rest, get checked into the hospital, be monitored for blood and urine changes, and begin taking medication for your blood pressure.

Following your doctor’s instructions is very important for taking care of yourself when you have preeclampsia. The only “cure” for preeclampsia is to have the baby. By following your doctor’s advice and having a safe pregnancy and delivery, you will be treating your preeclampsia and taking care of yourself and your baby the best way possible.

What is the Prognosis for Preeclampsia?

When preeclampsia is mild, the outcome is usually very good. Most women with mild preeclampsia deliver healthy babies at or near term. Women who want to give birth vaginally are often able to, despite their preeclampsia.

When preeclampsia is severe, the mother’s outcome depends on the ability to have the baby quickly. Blood pressure and anti-seizure drugs can be used to treat symptoms and make delivery safer if the baby is near term. Normally, symptoms of preeclampsia go away a few days after childbirth.

When preeclampsia is severe early in the third trimester, some women may need to deliver the baby preterm. If this is the case, the mother will take drugs to treat her blood pressure and help the baby develop quickly so that he or she has fewer problems from being born early. Preterm birth has its own set of complications, but sometimes it is the only way to save the life of a mother with early, severe preeclampsia.

Typically, preeclampsia resolves shortly after the baby is born. Sometimes, however, symptoms may last more than six weeks. If high blood pressure or protein in the urine lasts longer than this, you may be tested for chronic high blood pressure or kidney problems. Most women make a full recovery and do not have preeclampsia again in later pregnancies. Unless a preterm birth causes its own problems, most babies born to mothers with preeclampsia are also healthy.

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