HELLP syndrome is a rare but serious illness in pregnancy. This illness can start quickly, most often in the last 3 months of pregnancy (the third trimester). It can also start soon after you have your baby. HELLP stands for Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzyme levels and a Low Platelet count. These are problems that can occur in women who have this syndrome.
Women who have HELLP syndrome may have bleeding problems, liver problems and blood pressure problems that can hurt both the mother and the baby.
If you have HELLP syndrome, you may feel tired. You may have pain in the upper right part of your belly. You may have bad headaches and nausea or vomiting. You may have swelling, especially in your face and hands. Rarely, you may notice bleeding from your gums or other places.
Because many healthy pregnant women also have these symptoms late in pregnancy, it may be hard to know for sure if you have HELLP syndrome. Your doctor may order blood tests if you have these symptoms or if your blood pressure is high.
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes HELLP syndrome. They also can’t predict who will get it. Any pregnant woman may get this illness.
Most women who will get HELLP have blood pressure problems before they get HELLP syndrome. (But you can get HELLP syndrome even if your blood pressure is normal.)
You're more likely to get HELLP syndrome if you're white and older than 25 years of age. You are also more likely to get it if you have had children before or if you had a problem with a pregnancy in the past.
The main treatment for HELLP is to deliver your baby. This may have to be done before your due date. Most women who have this illness start to get better a couple of days after their babies are born.
If you aren't too sick, your doctor may wait a few days before delivering your baby.
You may have to take a steroid. This medicine helps both you and your baby.
If you have bleeding, you may need blood transfusions or other treatments in the hospital.
Some women who have HELLP syndrome get very sick. Rarely, this illness is fatal.
There is no way to prevent this illness. The best thing you can do is see your doctor regularly and tell your doctor about your symptoms at every prenatal visit.
If you have HELLP syndrome during one pregnancy, you can have it again during your next pregnancy. The illness is usually less severe the second time.
HELLP Syndrome: Recognition and Perinatal Management by Maureen O'Hara Padden, LCDR, MC, USN (American Family Physician September 01, 1999, http://www.aafp.org/afp/990901ap/829.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff