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Preeclampsia: What It Is, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatment & Prevention

Preeclampsia is a health condition that can occur during and immediately after pregnancy.

Learn what preeclampsia is, its symptoms, risk factors, causes, treatments and prevention strategies. Plus, find out how it affects your fetus and you during pregnancy, and what you can expect after delivery.

What is preeclampsia?

“Preeclampsia is a disease or disorder that is unique to pregnancy,” Dr. Sarah Little, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in a hospital video. “It affects about 5% of women.”

The condition occurs when the pregnant woman experiences high blood pressure and protein in the urine, according to Better Health Australia. If blood pressure is very high, other areas of the body like the lungs, liver, brain and blood clotting system can be affected.

Preeclampsia in pregnancy

Preeclampsia during pregnancy can lead to several health issues, including stroke, seizures and a condition known as HELLP Syndrome, in which the pregnant woman’s liver and blood cells are damaged. The U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) notes that preeclampsia is a “leading cause” of preterm birth (before 37 weeks).

So how quickly can preeclampsia develop? While it can start at any time during pregnancy, the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) says it rarely happens before the 20th week of pregnancy.

Postpartum preeclampsia

Giving birth often signals the end of preeclampsia. However, high blood pressure that occurs between 48 hours and six weeks after birth is considered postpartum preeclampsia, the NICHD says.

Preeclampsia symptoms

While many women are symptom-free, Better Health says that the signs of preeclampsia may include:

  • An abrupt rise in blood pressure (higher than pre-pregnancy levels)

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Protein in your urine

  • Fluid retention

  • Abdominal pain

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

Leaving your preeclampsia untreated can lead to:

  • Problems with blood clotting

  • Liver and/or kidney failure

  • Convulsions

In its most serious form, preeclampsia can even lead to death.

How does preeclampsia affect the fetus?

During pregnancy, the placenta grows in the uterus to feed the fetus with oxygen and nutrients from the woman’s blood, Better Health notes. Preeclampsia can slow this process down, which in turn may slow fetal growth. It can also cause a condition called placental abruption, in which the placenta separates from the uterus, potentially affecting the baby’s nutrient and oxygen supply. If preeclampsia is severe, the baby may have to be delivered early.

What causes preeclampsia?

The cause of preeclampsia isn’t known, but the key contributor seems to be issues with the blood vessels that supply the placenta with blood, according to the NHS. These issues lead to the improper development of the placenta.

Preeclampsia risk factors

“First-time moms have a higher incidence of preeclampsia, as well as older moms, heavier moms, moms carrying twins or triplets, as well as women who have underlying medical disorders,” Little explained in the video.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists these risk factors for developing preeclampsia:

  • Pregnancy that occurs more than 10 years after a previous pregnancy

  • Body mass index of 30 or more, meaning a person is obese

  • Having diabetes, kidney disease, an autoimmune disease or chronic high BP

  • Being a Black person (due to racism and inequities)

  • Having lower income (due to inequities)

  • Being age 35 or older

  • A family history of preeclampsia

Preeclampsia treatment

Delivery is seen as the start of the cure for preeclampsia. But the NICHD says the goal is to make it to at least 37 weeks to avoid premature birth, or to 34 weeks if a woman's preeclampsia is considered severe.

Here are some treatment strategies used to help meet those goals:

Preeclampsia medication

Medication for preeclampsia can include:

  • Blood pressure medication

  • Anticonvulsant medications

  • Steroid injections to help fetal lungs develop faster

Self-care tips for preeclampsia

If your doctor recommends an at-home treatment plan for your preeclampsia, the NICHD and the U.S. National Library of Medicine say it may include:

  • Being on bed rest

  • Changing your diet

  • Regular monitoring of blood pressure, fetal heart rate and other vital assessments

Your doctor may also recommend that you be admitted to the hospital for closer monitoring.

How to prevent preeclampsia

While there’s no foolproof way to prevent preeclampsia, following your doctor’s recommendations to address your risk factors can help. Little noted that taking low-dose aspirin may also help prevent the preeclampsia in women with a history of the condition.

Living with preeclampsia

The Preeclampsia Foundation says that preeclampsia can increase your risk for stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Because of these increased risks, Little recommended working closely with your doctor to get the care you need to stay healthy. If you’ve already had preeclampsia and plan to get pregnant again, talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk.

References

Brigham and Women’s Hospital: Pregnancy and Cardiometabolic Conditions (Preeclampsia)

Better Health Network Australia: Pregnancy — preeclampsia

Better Health Network Australia: Placental abruption

U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: About Eclampsia and Preeclampsia

U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: What are the treatments for preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP syndrome?

U.K. National Health Service: Pre-eclampsia

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

U.S. National Library of Medicine: Preeclampsia - self-care

Preeclampsia Foundation: FAQS

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