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Preeclampsia: A Serious Pregnancy Condition — What You Need to Know

Preeclampsia: A Serious Pregnancy Condition — What You Need to Know

Preeclampsia is a potentially serious condition that can bring a great deal of stress, anxiety, and fear to someone who has recently been diagnosed with it. But take a deep breath — we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about preeclampsia.


What is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a serious pregnancy complication that can be caused by several different smaller complications happening all at the same time. You may experience high blood pressure, high protein levels in urine (this may indicate damage to your kidneys), or other signs of organ damage. Preeclampsia typically begins after the 20th week of pregnancy but can also happen in the weeks after childbirth. When left untreated, preeclampsia can cause severe or even fatal problems for you and your baby.


What are Preeclampsia Signs and Symptoms?

Preeclampsia can sometimes develop without any symptoms. But often, the first signs of preeclampsia are found during a routine prenatal visit.

Symptoms may include:

  • Sudden weight gain of 2 to 5 pounds in a week
  • Swelling in your legs, face, or hands
  • Headache that won’t go away
  • Seeing spots, blurred vision, or being sensitive to light
  • Pain in the upper belly or shoulder
  • Nausea and vomiting during the second half of your pregnancy
  • Trouble breathing

If you have any of these symptoms, especially if they happen during the second half of pregnancy, call your healthcare provider right away!


What Causes Preeclampsia?

The experts aren’t exactly sure what causes preeclampsia. Still, many think it’s linked to the health of your placenta (the organ responsible for providing oxygen and nutrients to your baby). When the blood vessels that supply blood to your placenta don’t develop or work properly, this creates problems for you and your baby.


Am I at Risk for Preeclampsia?

We don’t know what causes preeclampsia, but some factors may make you more likely to develop preeclampsia like:

  • Having preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Being pregnant with more than one baby (twins, triplets, or more).
  • Having chronic high blood pressure
  • Having type 1 or type 2 diabetes before pregnancy
  • Having kidney disease
  • Having an autoimmune disease

Other risk factors for preeclampsia include:

  • Being obese (a body mass index of 30 or higher)
  • Never having a baby before, or it’s been more than 10 years since you had a baby
  • A family history of preeclampsia (your sister or mother has had it)
  • Complications in a previous pregnancy, like having a baby with low birth weight (a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces)
  • Use of fertility treatment (in vitro fertilization) to help you get pregnant
  • Being older than 35 years old
  • Being an African American woman


How Does Preeclampsia Affect My Body?

Without treatment, preeclampsia can cause serious health problems for you and your baby.

Health problems you may experience with preeclampsia are:

  • Kidney, liver, and brain damage
  • Issues with how your blood clots
  • Eclampsia — a rare and life-threatening condition when you have seizures or a coma after preeclampsia
  • Stroke
  • Death


How Does Preeclampsia Affect my Baby?

Preeclampsia can also cause health issues for your baby. If you have severe preeclampsia, your baby may not grow as expected, or you may experience a stillbirth. Preeclampsia can also cause an earlier than expected delivery (preterm delivery). Babies born early may have low birth weight or have breathing problems because of their underdeveloped lungs.


When Should I See a Doctor?

Your trusted healthcare provider will help you manage your condition. If your preeclampsia is not severe, your provider may manage your situation in the office or at home by closely monitoring your blood pressure and other symptoms. For example, you may be asked to keep track of your baby’s movement by doing a daily kick count. You may also be asked to monitor your blood pressure at home and instructed to follow up with the provider once or twice a week.

At 37 weeks of pregnancy, you and your healthcare provider may talk about giving birth. Your labor may be started with the help of medicines. Even with preeclampsia, you can still have a vaginal delivery. Still, if problems arise during your labor, you may need a c-section birth.

If you have severe preeclampsia symptoms, like when the top number of your blood pressure is greater than 160 mmHg or the bottom number is at least 110 mmHg, you may be treated in the hospital. If you are at least 34 weeks pregnant, your healthcare provider may talk about having your baby as soon as your condition is stable. However, if you are less than 34 weeks pregnant and your preeclampsia is under control, in that case, it may be possible to wait to deliver your baby.

Waiting to have your baby even just a few days may be helpful since your baby may be given medicine to help their lungs mature. Waiting to give birth can also provide you with time to take medications to lower your blood pressure. But, if your health or your baby’s health gets worse, your provider will talk to you about giving birth right away.


Can I Prevent Preeclampsia?

You can’t prevent preeclampsia, but you should try to become healthy before becoming pregnant, especially if you’ve had preeclampsia before. Here are some tips to lower your chance of developing preeclampsia:

  • Lose weight before becoming pregnant (if you are overweight/obese before pregnancy)
  • Manage your blood pressure and blood sugar (if you had high blood pressure or diabetes before pregnancy)
  • Keep a regular exercise routine
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat a healthy diet with foods low in salt and avoid caffeine.


Health Pregnancy and Birth

Preeclampsia is a serious medical condition affecting your and your baby’s health. Your treatment will depend on how far along you are in your pregnancy and how severe your preeclampsia is. If you have any concerns about your symptoms during pregnancy or after you deliver your baby, follow up with your healthcare provider.


Reviewer: Charlotte Houchins, RN, BSN, MBA, Women & Children’s Health Specialist II

  1. Preeclampsia, Cleveland Clinic.
  2. What are the risks of preeclampsia & eclampsia to the mother? Eunice Kennedy Schriver National Institute of Child and Human Development
  3. March of Dimes.
  4. Preeclampsia Mayo Clinic.
  5. National Library of Medicine.
  6. Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
  7. Gestational Hypertension and Preeclampsia. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Practice Bulletin No. 222.


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