What is preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is when you have high blood pressure and possibly protein in your urine during pregnancy or after delivery. You may also have low clotting factors (platelets) in your blood or indicators of kidney or liver trouble.
Preeclampsia generally happens after the 20th week of pregnancy. However, in some cases it occurs earlier, or after delivery.
Eclampsia is a severe progression of preeclampsia. With this condition, high blood pressure results in seizures. Like preeclampsia, eclampsia occurs during pregnancy or, rarely, after delivery.
Doctors can’t yet identify one single cause of preeclampsia, but some potential causes are being explored. These include:
- genetic factors
- blood vessel problems
- autoimmune disorders
There are also risk factors that can increase your chances of developing preeclampsia. These include:
- being pregnant with multiple fetuses
- being over the age of 35
- being in your early teens
- being pregnant for the first time
- being obese
- having a history of high blood pressure
- having a history of diabetes
- having a history of a kidney disorder
Nothing can definitively prevent this condition. Doctors may recommend that some women take baby aspirin after their first trimester to help prevent it.
Early and consistent prenatal care can help your doctor diagnose preeclampsia sooner and avoid complications. Having a diagnosis will allow your doctor to provide you with proper monitoring until your delivery date.
It’s important to remember that you might not notice any symptoms of preeclampsia. If you do develop symptoms, some common ones include:
- persistent headache
- abnormal swelling in your hands and face
- sudden weight gain
- changes in your vision
- pain in the right upper abdomen
During a physical exam, your doctor may find that your blood pressure is 140/90 mm Hg or higher. Urine and blood tests can also show protein in your urine, abnormal liver enzymes, and low platelet levels.
At that point, your doctor may do a nonstress test to monitor the fetus. A nonstress test is a simple exam that measures how the fetal heart rate changes as the fetus moves. An ultrasound may also be done to check your fluid levels and the health of the fetus.
The recommended treatment for preeclampsia during pregnancy is delivery of the baby. In most cases, this prevents the disease from progressing.
If you’re at week 37 or later, your doctor may induce labor. At this point, the baby has developed enough and isn’t considered premature.
If you have preeclampsia prior to 37 weeks, your doctor will consider both your and your baby’s health in deciding the timing for your delivery. This depends on many factors, including your baby’s gestational age, whether or not labor has begun, and how severe the disease has become.
Delivery of the baby and placenta should resolve the condition.
Other treatments during pregnancy
In some cases, you may be given medications to help lower your blood pressure. You may also be given medications to prevent seizures, a possible complication of preeclampsia.
Your doctor may want to admit you to the hospital for more thorough monitoring. You might be given intravenous (IV) medications to lower your blood pressure or steroid injections to help your baby’s lungs develop quicker.
The management of preeclampsia is guided by whether the disease is considered mild or severe. The signs of severe preeclampsia include:
- changes in the fetal heart rate that indicate distress
- abdominal pain
- impaired kidney or liver function
- fluid in the lungs
You should see your doctor if you notice any abnormal signs or symptoms during your pregnancy. Your main concern should be your health and the health of your baby.
Treatments after delivery
Once the baby is delivered, preeclampsia symptoms should resolve. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, most women will have normal blood pressure readings 48 hours after delivery.
However, in some cases, blood pressure can become elevated again a few days after delivery. For this reason, close follow-up care with your doctor and regular blood pressure checks are important even after delivery of your baby.
Although rare, preeclampsia can occur in the postpartum period following a normal pregnancy. Therefore, even after an uncomplicated pregnancy, you should see your doctor if you’ve recently had a baby and notice the symptoms noted above.
Preeclampsia is a very serious condition. It can be life-threatening for both mother and child if left untreated. Other complications can include:
- bleeding problems due to low platelet levels
- placental abruption (breaking away of the placenta from the uterine wall)
- damage to the liver
- kidney failure
- pulmonary edema
Complications for the baby can also occur if they’re born too early due to efforts to resolve preeclampsia.
During pregnancy, it’s important to keep you and your baby as healthy as possible. This includes eating a healthy diet, taking prenatal vitamins with folic acid, and going for regular prenatal care checkups.
But even with proper care, unavoidable conditions like preeclampsia can sometimes occur, during pregnancy or after delivery. This can be dangerous for both you and your baby.
Talk with your doctor about things you can do to reduce your risk of preeclampsia and about the warning signs. If necessary, they may refer you to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist for additional care.