What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a rare condition that women can get when pregnant. It occurs when a woman has high blood pressure and protein in her urine. Preeclampsia can happen when a woman is 20 weeks pregnant or more. In some cases, women can get preeclampsia after having their baby. This is called postpartum preeclampsia.

It is very important to see your doctor for routine prenatal visits. If the condition does not get diagnosed or treated, it can have harmful effects on the mother and/or baby.

Symptoms of preeclampsia

Most women who have preeclampsia do not know they have it. Symptoms either don’t exist or are mild. They include swelling and rapid weight gain (more than 2 pounds a week).

Severe symptoms are less common and can be confused with normal pregnancy symptoms. Call your doctor if you have:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Constant headache.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Decreased urine (amount of urine and/or frequency of urination).
  • Vision changes, such as blurry vision, light sensitivity, flashing lights, spots, or brief blindness.
  • Stomach pain on the right side below your ribs.

What causes preeclampsia?

There is no exact cause of preeclampsia. Doctors believe that it could be related to a woman’s genes and diet.

Women who have the following may be at greater risk:

  • First pregnancy.
  • Multiples pregnancy (two babies or more).
  • 35 years of age or older.
  • Personal history of preeclampsia.
  • Family history of preeclampsia.
  • History of high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.
  • Autoimmune disorders.
  • Blood vessel problems.
  • Obesity.
  • IVF (in vitro fertilization) fertility treatments.

How is preeclampsia diagnosed?

During pregnancy, you should visit your doctor for regular checkups and exams. The doctor will check for signs of preeclampsia. This includes collecting your blood pressure and weight. You also will be asked to leave a urine sample. Other tests may be done to check your and the baby’s health, if needed. These can determine if your condition is mild or severe.

Warning signs of severe preeclampsia may include:

  • Vaginal bleeding (sign of placental abruption).
  • Seizures in the mother.
  • Buildup of fluid in the mother’s lungs.
  • High levels of protein in urine, as well as low urine output.
  • Poor kidney function.
  • Abnormal liver function.
  • Low platelet count.

Can preeclampsia be prevented or avoided?

You cannot avoid preeclampsia. You may be able to help prevent it by taking low-dose (baby) aspirin if your doctor thinks you are at risk.

Preeclampsia treatment

The only way to cure preeclampsia is to deliver your baby. However, that might not always be possible. Your doctor will discuss the best option based on your length of pregnancy and the state of your condition.

If you are less than 34 weeks along and your condition is mild, the doctor likely will monitor your symptoms. This may mean more frequent doctor visits to check your blood pressure and urine. The doctor may give you orders to help manage symptoms at home. For example:

  • Drink more water.
  • Eat less salt.
  • Go on bed rest (staying in bed).
  • Lay only on your left side.

In some cases, your doctor may want to monitor you and your baby from the hospital. The doctor may prescribe steroid injections to speed up the growth of your baby’s lungs. Once the doctor thinks your baby is developed enough, they will schedule delivery.

If you are 37 weeks or more and/or have severe preeclampsia, the doctor likely will want to deliver your baby right away. To do this, they may induce you (give you medicine or break your water) to start labor or order a C-section.

Living with preeclampsia

Preeclampsia usually goes away within 6 weeks of delivering your baby. You may need to take medicine during this time to manage your blood pressure or prevent seizures. Women who have preeclampsia once are more likely to have it in future pregnancies. If you have high blood pressure during pregnancy, you are at risk of having high blood pressure when you are older. You also are at an increased risk of kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, and HELLP syndrome.

Complications of preeclampsia (for the mother) are rare but include:

  • seizures (clampsia)
  • bleeding
  • stroke
  • coma
  • death.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Am I at risk of having preeclampsia?
  • If I have preeclampsia in one pregnancy, will I have it in the rest?
  • Is there anything I can do to prevent preeclampsia?
  • After delivery, how long will I need to take medicine for preeclampsia?
  • What are the side effects or risks of the medicine?
  • Can I still breastfeed while taking medicine?
  • Once preeclampsia goes away, am I at risk for future health problems?