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What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is when you have high blood pressure and protein in your urine during pregnancy. It can happen at any point after the 20th week of pregnancy, though in some cases it occurs earlier. You may also have low clotting factors (platelets) in your blood or indicators of kidney or liver trouble. This condition is also called toxemia or pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH). Eclampsia is a severe complication of preeclampsia. Eclampsia includes high blood pressure resulting in seizures during pregnancy.

Approximately 5 to 10 percent of all pregnant women get preeclampsia.

What causes preeclampsia?

Doctors cannot yet identify one single cause of preeclampsia, but some potential causes are being explored. These include:

  • genetic factors
  • diet
  • blood vessel problems
  • autoimmune disorders

There are also risk factors that can increase your chances of developing preeclampsia. These include:

  • being pregnant with multiple fetuses
  • being over the age of 35
  • being in your early teens
  • being pregnant for the first time
  • being obese
  • having a history of high blood pressure
  • having a history of diabetes
  • having a history of a kidney disorder

Nothing can definitively prevent this condition. Early and consistent prenatal care can help your doctor diagnose it sooner and avoid complications. Having a diagnosis will allow your doctor to provide you with proper monitoring until your delivery date.

Symptoms of preeclampsia

It’s important to remember that you might not notice any 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 mm Hg or higher. Urine and blood tests can also show protein in your urine, abnormal liver enzymes, and platelet levels.

At that point, your doctor may do a nonstress test in their office to make sure the fetus is moving normally. A nonstress test is a simple exam that measures how the fetal heart rate changes as the fetus moves. An ultrasound may also be done to check your fluid levels and the health of the fetus.

What is the treatment for preeclampsia?

Delivery of your baby is the only cure for preeclampsia.

During pregnancy, your doctor will monitor and manage your condition to ensure you and your baby stay healthy. If you’re at week 37 or later, your doctor may induce labor. At this point, the baby has developed enough and is only minimally premature.

If your preeclampsia is mild, your doctor may recommend:

  • getting bed rest
  • reducing your salt intake
  • drinking more water
  • making regular visits to the doctor

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 (IV) medications to lower your blood pressure or steroid injections to help your baby’s lungs develop quicker.

Delivery might be the only safe option if the preeclampsia is severe enough to endanger the health of you or the fetus. This can be the case even if your baby will be delivered prematurely. The signs of severe preeclampsia include:

  • changes in the fetal heart rate that indicate distress
  • abdominal pain
  • seizures
  • impaired kidney function
  • fluid in the lungs

You should see your doctor if you notice any abnormal signs or symptoms during your pregnancy. Your main concern should be your health and the health of your baby.

What are the complications of preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia can be fatal for both mother and child if it’s left untreated. Other complications can include:

  • bleeding problems
  • breaking away of the placenta from the uterine wall
  • damage to the liver

Complications for the baby can also occur if they’re born too early.


During pregnancy, it’s 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. But even with proper care, unavoidable conditions like preeclampsia can sometimes occur. This can be dangerous for both you and your baby.

Talk with your doctor about things you can do to reduce your risk of preeclampsia and about the warning signs. If necessary, they may refer you to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist for additional care.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Jaime Herndon
Medically reviewed on: Mar 31, 2017: Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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