Preeclampsia is when you have new onset high blood pressure and at least one associated symptom, such as protein in your urine, during pregnancy or after delivery. You may also have low levels of platelets, which are blood cells that help your blood clot, or indicators of kidney or liver trouble.

Preeclampsia generally happens after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But 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.

Share on Pinterest
Jeremy Pawlowski/Stocksy United

Doctors have not yet identified the precise cause of preeclampsia, but some potential causes are being explored. These include:

Some risk factors can also increase your chance of developing preeclampsia. These include:

There’s no way to prevent preeclampsia. Doctors may recommend that some people take low-dose aspirin after their first trimester to help reduce the risk, according to a 2019 research review.

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:

During a physical exam, your doctor may find that your blood pressure is 140/90 millimeters of mercury or higher. Urine and blood tests can also show protein in your urine, atypical liver enzymes, and low platelet levels.

At this point, your doctor may do a nonstress test to monitor your baby. A nonstress test is a simple exam that measures how the baby’s heart rate changes as the baby moves. They may also do an ultrasound to check your fluid levels and the health of your baby.

The recommended treatment for preeclampsia during pregnancy is delivery. In most cases, delivering the baby prevents the condition from progressing.

Delivery

If you’re at 37 weeks or later, your doctor may induce labor. At this point, your baby has developed enough and isn’t considered premature.

If you have preeclampsia before 37 weeks, your doctor will consider the health of both you and your baby when deciding on 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 typically resolves the condition.

Other treatments during pregnancy

In some cases, your doctor may give you medications to help lower your blood pressure. They may also give you 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 receive intravenous (IV) medications to lower your blood pressure or steroid injections to help your baby’s lungs develop more quickly.

The management of preeclampsia is guided by whether the disease is considered mild or severe. The signs of severe preeclampsia include:

  • changes in the baby’s heart rate that indicate distress
  • abdominal pain
  • seizures
  • impaired kidney or liver function
  • fluid in the lungs

If you have any symptoms of severe preeclampsia, it’s vital to get immediate medical attention. It’s always important to contact your doctor if you notice any unusual signs or symptoms during your pregnancy. Remember that your main concern is your health and the health of your baby.

Treatments after delivery

According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, once the baby is delivered, preeclampsia symptoms typically resolve within 48 hours. Research has found that for many women with preeclampsia, the symptoms resolve and liver and kidney function return to normal within a few months.

However, preeclampsia can also occur after delivery, even if you had an uncomplicated pregnancy. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development says that postpartum preeclampsia typically happens between 48 hours and 6 weeks after delivery.

For this reason, if you had preeclampsia during your pregnancy, close follow-up care with your doctor and regular blood pressure checks are important after you deliver your baby. Even after an uncomplicated pregnancy, contact your doctor if you’ve recently had a baby and notice symptoms of preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a very serious condition. It can be life threatening for both you and your baby 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
  • seizures

Complications for the baby can also occur if they’re born premature due to efforts to resolve preeclampsia.

While the prevalence of preeclampsia is 3 to 5 percent, a 2020 research review found that its impact is not equal across all populations. The rates of occurrence and outcomes are disproportionate among certain groups. These include non-Hispanic Black women and American Indian or Alaskan Native women.

The existing data on disparities mostly compares the differences between non-Hispanic Black and white women. Only a few studies have looked at outcomes for Asian, American Indian, Alaskan Native, or mixed-race women.

A 2017 report examined the prevalence of preeclampsia in 2014. It included data from nearly 177,000 deliveries in women with preeclampsia or eclampsia.

The total rates of preeclampsia and eclampsia based on race and ethnicity:

  • 69.8 per 1,000 deliveries for Black women — 60 percent higher than for white women
  • 46.8 per 1,000 deliveries for Hispanic women
  • 43.3 per 1,000 deliveries for white women
  • 28.8 per 1,000 deliveries for Asian/Pacific Islander women

It’s also important to note that, overall, morbidity and mortality in pregnancy aren’t equal across racial and ethnic groups.

For example, a 2019 study found that, between the years of 2007 and 2016, Black and American Indian or Alaskan Native women experienced more pregnancy-related deaths than white, Hispanic, and Asian American or Pacific Islander women.

Overall, studies that discuss preeclampsia and use race and ethnic differences for clarity can be limited. Further research is warranted that considers environmental, behavioral, genetic, and socioeconomic factors as well as access to healthcare.

During pregnancy, it’s important to keep you and your baby as healthy as possible. This includes eating a balanced diet, taking prenatal vitamins with folic acid, and going for regular prenatal care checkups.

But even with proper care, unavoidable conditions like preeclampsia sometimes occur, during pregnancy or after delivery. Preeclampsia can be dangerous for both you and your baby.

Talk with your doctor about things you can do to lower your risk of preeclampsia and about the warning signs. If necessary, they may refer you to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist for additional care.