What Happens When You Have Preeclampsia?

Reviewed on 1/5/2021

What is preeclampsia?

Women with preeclampsia develop high blood pressure and high levels of protein in their urine.
Women with preeclampsia develop high blood pressure and high levels of protein in their urine.

Some women develop preeclampsia during the second half of their pregnancy, usually around the 20-week mark. In some cases, preeclampsia begins in the first week after the baby is born. Women with preeclampsia develop high blood pressure and high levels of protein in their urine.

Preeclampsia is rare, but it needs to be monitored so that this condition doesn’t cause damage to the kidneys or liver. Most women who develop preeclampsia deliver healthy babies and don’t have any further complications. In some cases though, complications occur that can put the life of either the mother or baby at risk.

Signs and symptoms of preeclampsia

Usually, women with preeclampsia don’t notice any symptoms or feel sick. If you develop this condition, normally your doctor will catch it during your routine prenatal appointments.

High blood pressure

The first indication that you may have preeclampsia is high blood pressure. This is measured as blood pressure that is 140/90 or higher.

Swelling

Experiencing some swelling of the feet and ankles during pregnancy is quite normal. However, women with preeclampsia have swelling in other parts of the body, like the face, hands, and eyes. This is caused by retaining too many fluids, a condition that is known as edema.

Sudden weight gain

Another symptom of preeclampsia that you should pay attention to is a sudden weight gain over the course of a couple of days, or if you’re gaining more than 2 pounds a week.

Headache

Headaches that don’t go away are another sign of preeclampsia. These headaches may also become worse over time.

Shortness of breath

You may experience shortness of breath or trouble breathing with preeclampsia. Along with the shortness of breath, you may feel a burning sensation right behind your sternum.

Abdominal pain

Preeclampsia may cause you to feel abdominal pain, especially pain that is concentrated on your right side, just below the ribs. This pain can also travel up to the right shoulder.

Abdominal pain can be hard to attribute to preeclampsia because other conditions, like heartburn, gallbladder pain, or a stomach virus can feel the same. This abdominal pain may also be confused with the baby kicking.

Blurred vision

Blurred vision can also be a sign of preeclampsia. You may notice some changes in your vision, like sensitivity to light, temporary blindness, or seeing spots.

Causes of preeclampsia

The exact cause of preeclampsia is not yet known. Doctors think that this condition could be linked to a problem with the placenta, the organ that’s responsible for giving food to the baby from the mother.

While there isn’t a known cause, there are known risk factors or groups of people who have higher chances of developing preeclampsia. This condition develops in about 5% of pregnancies. Risk factors for preeclampsia include:

Pre-existing conditions

You have a higher risk of developing preeclampsia if you have these conditions prior to pregnancy:

Genetics

Some genetic factors also play a role in developing preeclampsia. For example, women who have a history of preeclampsia in their families have a greater chance of developing it themselves. Black women are also at a greater risk of developing preeclampsia during pregnancy.

Age and weight

If you are over 40, your chances of having preeclampsia increase. Your weight may also increase your risk. Women with obesity who have a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or more are more likely to develop preeclampsia.

Other factors

If it’s your first pregnancy or it’s been ten years or more since your last pregnancy, your risk of preeclampsia increases. This is also true if you’ve had another pregnancy in which you developed preeclampsia.

Women who are pregnant who are expecting multiple babies, like twins or triplets, are also more at risk. So are women who have gone through in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

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Diagnosis and tests for preeclampsia

If you have symptoms of preeclampsia, your doctor will give you a physical exam and take your blood pressure. They will also look for signs of swelling and weight gain.

Your doctor will take blood tests and urine samples to look for markers of preeclampsia. One symptom of preeclampsia is protein in the urine, which is called proteinuria. Other reasons for these tests are:

Treatments for preeclampsia

The only cure for preeclampsia is the delivery of the baby. If you have mild preeclampsia, your doctor will monitor your health and symptoms with frequent prenatal checkups, usually every three weeks.

If you have severe preeclampsia, you may need to be hospitalized so that your doctor can monitor your health. If your symptoms continue to get worse, you may be hospitalized until delivery. In the hospital, doctors will put you on bed rest. You may also receive anti-hypertensive medicine to help lower your blood pressure.

If preeclampsia goes untreated it can turn into eclampsia, which causes seizures and can be fatal.

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References
Cedars-Sinai: "Preeclampsia and Eclampsia."

Health Direct Australia: "Treating pre-eclampsia."

March of Dimes: "Preeclampsia."

Mount Sinai: "Preeclampsia."

National Health Service: "Pre-eclampsia."

Preeclampsia Foundation: "FAQs."

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