Understanding Preeclampsia

Understanding Preeclampsia

Health care provider taking pregnant woman's blood pressure.

Preeclampsia is pregnancy-related hypertension that develops after 20 weeks' gestation. It can lead to health risks for you and your baby. No one knows what causes preeclampsia. But it is known that the only cure is delivery.

Signs and symptoms

A common sign of preeclampsia is high blood pressure. Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • Rapid weight gain

  • Protein in your urine

  • Headache

  • Abdominal pain on your right side

  • Vision problems (flashes or spots)

  • Edema (swelling) in your face or hands (this also commonly happens near the end of normal pregnancies, even without preeclampsia)

Tests you may have

Your healthcare provider will want to check your blood pressure throughout your pregnancy. If your blood pressure is high, you may have the following tests:

  • Urine tests to look for protein

  • Blood tests to confirm preeclampsia

  • Fetal monitoring to ensure that your baby is healthy

Treating preeclampsia

A daily low dose of aspirin may be prescribed to those at risk for preeclampsia. Preeclampsia almost always ends soon after you give birth. Until then, your healthcare provider can help manage your condition. If your symptoms are mild, you may need bed rest at home. If your symptoms are severe, you will be hospitalized. Hospital treatment includes:

  • Complete bed rest to help control blood pressure

  • Magnesium IV (intravenous) drip during labor to prevent seizures

  • Induced labor or surgical delivery by cesarean section

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if swelling, weight gain, or other symptoms come on quickly or are severe. Some cases of preeclampsia are more severe than others. Your signs and symptoms also may change or worsen as you get closer to your due date.

Who’s at risk?

Preeclampsia can happen in any pregnant woman. Factors that increase the risk include:

  • Previous pregnancies. Preeclampsia, intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), preterm birth, placental abruption, or fetal death

  • Medical history of mother. Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, kidney disease, autoimmune disease (for example lupus), or family history of preeclampsia

  • Current pregnancy. First pregnancy, multiple fetuses, over the age of 40 years, or in vitro fertilization

Dangers of preeclampsia

If not treated, preeclampsia can cause problems for you and your baby. The placenta (organ that nourishes your baby) may tear away from the uterine wall. This can lead to fetal distress (the baby is at risk for health problems) and premature delivery. Preeclampsia can also cause these health problems:

  • Kidney failure or other organ damage

  • Seizures

  • Stroke

Once you give birth

In most cases, preeclampsia goes away on its own soon after you give birth. Within days of delivery, your blood pressure, swelling, and other signs should decrease.

Preeclampsia and heart disease

Studies show a link between preeclampsia and cardiovascular conditions later in life. Women with a history of preeclampsia have three to four times the risk of developing high blood pressure and double the risk for heart disease and stroke. They also have an increased risk of developing diabetes.

Women who have had preeclampsia should continue to monitor their blood pressure—healthy blood pressure is around 120/80. See a health care provider for yearly check-ups and talk with them about your history of preeclampsia and your risk of cardiovascular issues. If you have concerns about your heart health, schedule an appointment with Saint Luke's Cardiovascular Consultants.

You can also make lifestyle changes that reduce your risk of heart disease, such as stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight, eat a heart-healthy diet, and get regular exercise.