What Is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a syndrome that’s unique to pregnancy. It’s not a disease but rather a collection of diseases, which is why it’s difficult to pinpoint why it happens. While the features of the syndrome are well known, there’s no known reason why some people get it and others don’t.

It affects up to 10 percent of pregnant women and typically begins during the second or third trimester. If you had a normal first pregnancy, your risk of having preeclampsia in the next pregnancy is much lower—but not completely unlikely.

What Causes Preeclampsia?

Researchers have good reason to believe the placenta plays a prominent role in preeclampsia. The placenta provides oxygen and nutrients to your growing baby and removes waste products from your baby's blood.

Doctors don’t know why, but sometimes the placenta will release certain proteins that can cause changes to your blood vessels, and cause your kidneys to leak proteins. This leads to protein in your urine, which is one of the features of preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia With Twins

If you’re pregnant with more than one baby you have a greater chance of developing preeclampsia because your body is carrying multiple placentas, which automatically multiplies the odds that at least one of those placentas might malfunction.

Other Risk Factors

Preeclampsia is linked to additional factors, and you might be more at risk to develop the syndrome if:

  • You had preeclampsia during a previous pregnancy.
  • You have a family history of preeclampsia.
  • You have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, or both.
  • You conceived using in vitro fertilization.
  • You have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
  • You’re obese.
  • You’re under 20.
  • You’re over 40. 

Preeclampsia can damage your kidneys, liver, and brain. It can also lead to preterm birth, stillbirth, organ failure, or stroke. In severe cases, preeclampsia can develop into eclampsia, which includes seizures. 

About 10 percent to 20 percent of women who have severe preeclampsia develop HELLP syndrome, which requires emergency treatment.

In rare cases, preeclampsia can be fatal for you and/or your baby. That’s why it’s so important to learn about the early signs and symptoms, and to talk with your doctor about your treatment options.

Signs of Preeclampsia

One of the most common signs of preeclampsia is high blood pressure, which can either rise slowly or spike without warning. It can happen to anyone—even women who are very fit and who never had blood pressure problems before getting pregnant.

The good news: Doctors are vigilant about monitoring blood pressure during prenatal visits and can quickly spot unusual changes to your levels. (A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mm. Anything above 140/90 mmHg is considered abnormal.)

You can also keep track of your blood pressure at home with a home blood pressure monitor. Learn more about how to monitor your blood pressure.

Other Preeclampsia Symptoms

However, it’s possible to have high blood pressure and not develop preeclampsia. It’s confusing, so be sure to watch for other preeclampsia symptoms, including:

  • Sudden weight gain and swelling;
  • Changes in vision including blurred vision, light sensitivity or temporary vision loss;
  • Severe headaches;
  • Nausea or vomiting;
  • Shortness of breath.

Many of these symptoms are also fairly common among pregnant women who don’t have preeclampsia, so listen to your body and tell your doctor when you think something’s wrong.

Don’t worry about asking too many questions. It’s their job to help you, even when all you need is peace of mind.

Preeclampsia Treatment

The only cure for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby and placenta.

If your preeclampsia is not severe, your doctor will closely monitor you throughout your pregnancy to check on your health, your baby’s heart rate and growth, and how the placenta is functioning. They might also recommend home blood pressure monitoring.

If you develop high blood pressure that doesn’t respond to medications, liver or kidney problems, you might be at risk for long term health problems and your doctor might recommend delivery—even if it’s before 34 weeks. It’s preferable to deliver a preterm baby that they can treat rather than endanger your life (or quality of life).

In some cases, you can manage preeclampsia with medications to lower blood pressure if there aren’t other abnormalities of your kidney or liver function and if your platelet count remains normal.

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Postpartum Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia symptoms usually go away within six weeks of delivery. However, some women develop postpartum preeclampsia so if you experience any signs of preeclampsia after birth, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.