Preeclampsia and postpartum preeclampsia are hypertensive disorders related to pregnancy. A hypertensive disorder is one that causes high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia happens during pregnancy. It means your blood pressure is at or above 140/90. You also have swelling and protein in your urine. Following delivery, the symptoms of preeclampsia go away as your blood pressure stabilizes.

Postpartum preeclampsia happens soon after childbirth, whether or not you had high blood pressure during pregnancy. In addition to high blood pressure, symptoms may include headache, abdominal pain, and nausea.

Postpartum preeclampsia is rare. Having this condition can lengthen your recovery from childbirth, but there are effective treatments to get your blood pressure back under control. Left untreated, this condition can lead to serious complications.

Read on to learn more about identifying and treating postpartum preeclampsia.

You may have spent some time reading up on what to expect during pregnancy and delivery. But your body also changes after childbirth, and there are still some health risks.

Postpartum preeclampsia is one such risk. You can develop it even if you didn't have preeclampsia or high blood pressure during pregnancy.

Postpartum preeclampsia often develops within 48 hours of giving birth. For some women, it can take as long as six weeks to develop. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • excess protein in the urine (proteinuria)
  • severe headache or migraine
  • blurred vision, seeing spots, or light sensitivity
  • pain in the upper right abdomen
  • swelling of the face, limbs, hands, and feet
  • nausea or vomiting
  • decreased urination
  • rapid weight gain

Postpartum preeclampsia is a very series condition that can progress quickly. If you have some of these symptoms, call your doctor right away. If you can’t reach your doctor, go to the nearest emergency room.

The causes of postpartum preeclampsia are unknown, but there are certain risk factors that may increase your risk. Some of these include:

  • uncontrolled high blood pressure before you were pregnant
  • high blood pressure during your most recent pregnancy (gestational hypertension)
  • a family history of postpartum preeclampsia
  • being under age 20 or over age 40 when you have a baby
  • obesity
  • having multiples, such as twins or triplets
  • type 1 or type 2 diabetes

If you develop postpartum preeclampsia during your hospital stay, you most likely won’t be discharged until it resolves. If you’ve already been discharged, you may have to return for diagnosis and treatment.

To reach a diagnosis, your doctor may do any of the following:

  • blood pressure monitoring
  • blood tests for platelet counts and to check liver and kidney function
  • urinalysis to check protein levels

Your doctor will prescribe medication to treat postpartum preeclampsia. Depending on your specific case, these medications may include:

  • medication to lower blood pressure
  • anti-seizure medication, such as magnesium sulfate
  • blood thinners (anticoagulants) to help prevent blood clots

It’s generally safe to take these medications when you’re breastfeeding, but it’s important to discuss this with your doctor.

Your doctor will work to find the right medication to get your blood pressure under control, which will help ease symptoms. This could take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

In addition to recovering from postpartum preeclampsia, you’ll also be recovering from childbirth itself. This could include physical and emotional changes such as:

  • fatigue
  • vaginal discharge or cramping
  • constipation
  • tender breasts
  • sore nipples if you’re breastfeeding
  • feeling blue or weepy, or mood swings
  • problems with sleep and appetite
  • abdominal pain or discomfort if you’ve had a cesarean delivery
  • discomfort due to hemorrhoids or episiotomy

You might need to stay in the hospital longer or get more bed rest than you would otherwise. Taking care of yourself and your newborn can be a challenge at this time. Try to do the following:

  • Lean on loved ones for help until you’re fully recovered. Stress the seriousness of your condition. Let them know when you feel overwhelmed and be specific about the type of assistance you need.
  • Keep all your follow-up appointments. It’s important for you and your baby.
  • Ask about the signs and symptoms that signal an emergency.
  • If you can, hire a babysitter so you can catch up on rest.
  • Don’t return to work until your doctor says it’s safe to do so.
  • Make your recovery a top priority. That means letting go of unimportant tasks so you can concentrate on regaining your strength.

Your doctor will talk to you about what's safe to do and how to best care for yourself. Ask questions and follow these recommendations carefully. Be sure to report any new or worsening symptoms right away.

Tell your doctor if you feel overwhelmed or have symptoms of anxiety or depression.

The outlook for full recovery is good once the condition is diagnosed and treated.

Without prompt treatment, postpartum preeclampsia can lead to serious, even life-threatening complications. Some of these are:

  • stroke
  • excess fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
  • blocked blood vessel due to a blood clot (thromboembolism)
  • postpartum eclampsia, which affects brain function and results in seizures. This can cause permanent damage to the eyes, liver, kidneys, and brain.
  • HELLP syndrome, which stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count. Hemolysis is the destruction of red blood cells.

Because the cause is unknown, it’s not possible to prevent postpartum preeclampsia. If you’ve had the condition before or have a history of high blood pressure, your doctor may make some recommendations for controlling blood pressure during your next pregnancy.

Make sure your blood pressure is checked after you have a baby. This won’t prevent preeclampsia, but early detection can get you started on treatment and help avoid serious complications.

Postpartum preeclampsia is a life-threatening condition. With treatment, the outlook is very good.

While it’s natural to focus on your new baby, it’s just as important to pay attention to your own health. If you have symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia, see your doctor right away. It’s the best thing you can do for you and your baby.