Preeclampsia occurs when a pregnant woman has high blood pressure and protein in her urine at any point after her 20th week of pregnancy. This condition is also called toxemia or pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH). It only occurs during pregnancy, although in some cases, it can occur earlier than the 20th week.
According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, approximately five to eight percent of pregnant women experience preeclampsia. (PF)
During pregnancy, it is important to keep you and your baby as healthy as possible. This includes eating a healthy diet, taking prenatal vitamins with folic acid, and going for regular prenatal care checkups. However, even with proper care, unavoidable conditions like preeclampsia can sometimes occur and endanger your health or that of your baby.
Doctors cannot yet identify one single cause of preeclampsia. However, some potential causes are being explored, such as:
- genetic factors
- blood vessels problems
- autoimmune disorders
There are also risk factors that can increase your chances of developing preeclampsia. These include:
- being pregnant with multiple fetuses
- advanced maternal age (over the age of 35)
- first pregnancy
- history of hypertension or diabetes
- history of kidney disorder
- pregnancy in early teens
Nothing can definitively prevent this condition. Early and consistent prenatal care can help diagnose it sooner and provide you with the proper monitoring until your delivery date.
It is important to remember that you might not have any noticeable symptoms of preeclampsia. If you do develop symptoms, some common ones include:
- persistent headache
- abnormal swelling in your hands and face
- sudden weight gain
- changes in your vision
During a physical exam, your doctor may find that your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher. Urine and blood tests can also show protein in the urine, and abnormal liver enzymes and platelet levels.
At that point, your doctor may do a non-stress test in his or her office to make sure the baby is moving normally. According to the Mayo Clinic, a non-stress test is a simple exam that measures how the fetal heart rate changes as the fetus moves. (Mayo) An ultrasound may also be done to check your fluid levels and the health of the fetus.
Delivery of your baby is the only cure for preeclampsia.
During pregnancy, your condition will be monitored and managed to ensure you and the baby remain healthy. If you are at 37 weeks gestation or later, you may be induced. At this point, the baby has developed enough and is only minimally premature.
If your preeclampsia is mild, your doctor may recommend:
- bed rest
- reduced salt intake
- increased water consumption
- regular doctor’s visits
In some cases, you may be given medications to help lower your blood pressure.
If your condition is serious, your doctor may want to admit you to the hospital for more thorough monitoring. You might be given intravenous medications to lower your blood pressure or steroid injections to help your baby’s lungs develop quicker.
If the preeclampsia is severe enough to endanger the health of you or the fetus, delivery might be the only safe option—even if your baby will be delivered prematurely. Signs of severe preeclampsia include fetal distress, abdominal pain, seizures, impaired kidney function, and fluid in the mother’s lungs.
If you notice any abnormal signs or symptoms during your pregnancy, you should call your doctor. Your main concern should be your health and that of your baby.
If left untreated, preeclampsia can be fatal to both mother and child. Other complications can include bleeding problems, placental abruption, damage to the liver, and complications for the baby if born too early.
Talk with your doctor about things you can do to reduce your risk and about the warning signs. If necessary, he or she may refer you to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist to provide additional care.
Written by: Jaime Herndon
Published on Jul 20, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD