Preeclampsia is a serious condition that can occur during pregnancy. The condition causes your blood pressure to become very high and can be life-threateningly. Preeclampsia can occur early in pregnancy or even postpartum, but often occurs after 20 weeks gestational age. An estimated 10 percent of women experience preeclampsia.
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes preeclampsia. They think it’s possibly related to blood vessels in the placenta developing improperly. This can be due to family history, blood vessel damage, immune system disorders, or other unknown causes. Regardless of the cause, preeclampsia requires fast action to control blood pressure.
If you have two blood pressure measurements equal to or greater than 140/90 mm Hg four hours apart and you do not have a history of chronic high blood pressure, you may have preeclampsia. This increase in blood pressure can take place suddenly and with no warning.
Other symptoms associated with preeclampsia include:
- difficulty breathing
- severe headache
- shortness of breath
- sudden weight gain
- swelling in the face and hands
- too much protein in the urine, which can indicate kidney problems
- vision changes, such as sensitivity to light, blurred vision, or temporary vision loss
It’s important to seek immediate medical treatment if you experience any of these symptoms. Women may initially pass off their symptoms as those of a normal pregnancy. If you suspect you have preeclampsia, it’s better to be safe than to experience more serious complications.
Your doctor will consider how far along you are in your pregnancy and your baby’s development when deciding how to control your blood pressure. If you’re 37 weeks pregnant or further along, delivery of the baby and placenta are recommended to stop progression of the disease.
If your baby hasn’t yet developed enough, your doctor may prescribe medicines designed to help your baby grow while also keeping your blood pressure low. Examples include:
- blood pressure-lowering medications
- corticosteroids, which are medications used to help your baby’s lungs mature and reduce inflammation in your liver
- medications known to help reduce seizures, including magnesium sulfate
In many instances, these medications are delivered in a hospital setting. While bed rest has not necessarily been proven to help reduce blood pressure, you can be more closely monitored in a hospital.
If you have mild preeclampsia (somewhere between 120/80 and 140/90 blood pressures), your doctor may allow you to rest at home. You’ll want to keep a close watch on your preeclampsia symptoms. Examples of steps you could take in an attempt to keep your blood pressure low and minimize side effects include:
- decreasing your salt intake
- drinking plenty of water throughout the day
- increasing the amount of protein in your diet, if your diet has previously lacked enough protein
- resting on the left side of your body to reduce pressure to major blood vessels
Keep in mind that taking these steps may not effectively prevent your preeclampsia from worsening. Your doctor will likely recommend you come to their office regularly for checkups to test your baby’s health.
The most serious complication of preeclampsia is death, both to the mother and baby. Doctors also know that women who experience preeclampsia during pregnancy are at greater risk for cardiovascular and kidney disease in the future. Women with preeclampsia can also have seizures (known as eclampsia) or they’re at risk for HELLP syndrome. This serious condition stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet counts. This condition can cause blood clotting disorders, severe pain, and can be life-threatening.
It’s important to call your doctor right away if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of preeclampsia to help prevent any of these possible complications.
If you’re far enough along with your pregnancy to deliver your baby, your blood pressure will usually return to normal levels after giving birth. Sometimes this can take up to three months. In most instances, your doctor will do everything possible to help your baby develop enough to be safely delivered.
If you have a history of preeclampsia, it’s important to take steps to ensure your health before getting pregnant. This can include losing weight if you’re overweight, reducing high blood pressure, and controlling your diabetes, if applicable.
Your doctor may recommend several preventive steps if you’ve had preeclampsia or if you are at risk for the condition. Examples include:
- low-dose aspirin between 60 and 81 milligrams
- regular prenatal care so preeclampsia can be found as early as possible
Making and keeping your regular doctor’s appointments is vital to recognizing high blood pressure.