Preeclampsia is a medical condition that occurs during pregnancy, and it’s the most common pregnancy-related complication experienced by expecting mothers.
March of Dimes reports that, “[Preeclampsia] affects 2 to 8 percent of pregnancies worldwide” and that, “In the United States, [preeclampsia is] the cause of 15 percent (about 3 in 20) of premature births.”
It’s important for expectant mothers to attend prenatal appointments, because if left untreated, preeclampsia can have severe health effects on you and your baby.
To help protect your health and your baby’s health, learn about preeclampsia, what it is, the risks, the signs and symptoms, and the treatment options available.
What is preeclampsia?
Formerly referred to as toxemia, preeclampsia is a condition where pregnant women develop high blood pressure and/or protein in their urine as a result of the placenta not developing correctly. This condition usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
There are quite a few risk factors associated with preeclampsia.
Some of these risk factors include the following:
- Being a first-time mom
- Prior medical history of high blood pressure, kidney disease, or preeclampsia
- Family history of preeclampsia
- Carrying multiple babies (twins, triplets, etc.)
- Young maternal age (women younger than 20 years)
- Advanced maternal age (women older than 40 years)
- Having a BMI of 30 or greater
While the cause of preeclampsia is still unclear, one of the potential reasons may be insufficiently formed placental blood vessels.
When blood vessels are restricted or narrow, the development of the placenta becomes an issue. This can result in high blood pressure and/or protein in the urine.
Damage to blood vessels in the placenta may be caused by immune system problems, genetics, or inadequate blood flow to the uterus.
Beyond the health risks preeclampsia poses to the mother, the development of the placenta is crucial to the growth of the baby.
Does preeclampsia affect the baby?
Simply put, yes. Preeclampsia can lead to low birth weight in babies due to the placenta not getting enough blood, oxygen, or nutrients.
Unfortunately, the only cure for preeclampsia is delivery. However, symptoms may persist for weeks after birth. Talk with your provider if you start to develop preeclampsia symptoms after giving birth.
Symptoms of preeclampsia
Some women may never experience signs of preeclampsia, but common symptoms depend on the severity level of the condition. Below, we highlight symptoms that you may see in mild and severe forms of preeclampsia:
Symptoms of mild preeclampsia
- Protein in the urine
- High blood pressure
- Water retention or swelling in extremities (feet, legs, hands)
Symptoms of severe preeclampsia
- Urinating small amounts
- Pain in the abdomen
- Trouble breathing
- Rapid weight gain (2-5 lbs per week)
Note: Swelling in feet, hands, and legs can be a common symptom in pregnant women during their third trimester, and it may not always signal a condition like preeclampsia. Even so, it’s best to consult with your provider if you’re experiencing swelling of any kind.
Contact your provider immediately if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Distorted vision (blurred, seeing flashing lights or spots, light sensitivity, etc.)
- Severe headaches
- Severe abdominal pain on the right side
- Infrequent urination
How do you know if you have preeclampsia?
Visiting your provider is the best way to diagnose preeclampsia. Your provider will perform tests to determine if you’re suffering from hypertension and proteinuria. A positive test result for these conditions is indicative of preeclampsia.
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
High blood pressure is one of the main symptoms of preeclampsia. A blood pressure reading above 140/90 is abnormal and can signal preeclampsia in expectant mothers.
Proteinuria is the presence of excess protein in the urine and is indicative of preeclampsia in an expectant mother. A urine test will help determine whether there is protein in the urine.
During your prenatal checkups, your provider will monitor your blood pressure and urine protein levels. If these levels are abnormal, your provider may order additional tests to diagnose preeclampsia. These tests may include blood samples, ultrasounds, and monitoring your baby’s heartbeat.
Your provider may take blood samples to assess your kidney and liver function, as well as how your blood is clotting.
Ultrasounds help providers monitor the growth of the baby throughout pregnancy. During your ultrasound appointments, your provider will check to ensure that your baby is growing properly.
Another test may include checking your baby’s heartbeat, and how their heart reacts when they move. By monitoring fetal movement and heart rate, providers can assess whether you might be experiencing preeclampsia.
Depending on how close a woman is to her due date, there are different types of treatment for preeclampsia. The closer you are to your due date, the more likely your provider will want to deliver your baby sooner.
Treatments for mild preeclampsia
If you are diagnosed with mild preeclampsia, your treatment may include one or all of the following:
- More frequent prenatal checkups
- Reduced salt consumption
- Increased water consumption (8 glasses daily)
- Consuming a diet high in lean protein
Treatments for severe preeclampsia
If you are diagnosed with a severe form of preeclampsia, your provider may recommend additional monitoring during your pregnancy and one or all of the following treatments:
- Blood pressure medication
- Bed rest
- Dietary changes
Many treatments for severe preeclampsia aim to get you far enough through your pregnancy to safely deliver your baby.
Leaving preeclampsia untreated can result in liver or kidney failure in the mother, and the potential for cardiovascular issues in the future.
Furthermore, women may experience the following life-threatening conditions:
Eclampsia is a severe form of preeclampsia that can involve seizures and strokes, which can lead to coma and possible death.
HELLP stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count syndrome. This condition occurs late in pregnancy and affects the clotting of the blood, liver function, and breaks down red blood cells. If left untreated, HELLP syndrome can result in life-threatening complications for both you and your baby.
There is no way to prevent preeclampsia entirely, but there are some ways you can adjust your lifestyle or diet to reduce high blood pressure.
Ways to maintain normal blood pressure during pregnancy:
- Eat a low sodium diet
- Drink 8 glasses of water daily
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight range
- Get enough sleep and rest
- Avoid drinking alcohol
- Avoid caffeine
- Elevate your feet to reduce swelling
Maintaining a healthy pregnancy
If you’ve noticed your feet and hands swelling during pregnancy, consult with a provider at Metro OBGYN about preeclampsia. While swelling is a common pregnancy symptom that isn’t always indicative of preeclampsia, it’s often the first sign. Your provider will be able to determine if additional testing is needed.
Your health and your baby’s health is essential. Schedule a prenatal appointment with your provider to discuss how you can reduce your risk of preeclampsia and what to do if you’re experiencing symptoms.