Preeclampsia is a complication that may arise during pregnancy. Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure and is a sign that your organs (commonly the kidney or liver) are not working correctly. Although it’s a pretty rare condition – currently, only 5% of pregnant women in the United States suffer from preeclampsia – it can be risky or even life-threatening for mom and baby.
What Causes Preeclampsia?
As with many other conditions that can arise during pregnancy, the exact reason behind preeclampsia is not known. Similarly to those conditions, changes in hormones are cited as a possible reason.
Who Is at Risk?
You could be at risk for preeclampsia if:
- It’s in your genes
- This is your first pregnancy
- You’re carrying multiples
- You’re younger than 20 or older than 40 years old
- You had high blood pressure or kidney disease before your pregnancy
- You had preeclampsia or gestational hypertension during a previous pregnancy
- Your BMI is 30 or greater
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a way to prevent preeclampsia. But, there are some things you can do to help keep your blood pressure levels in check.
- Drink plenty of water
- Don’t stress yourself too much
- Exercise as much as possible
- Make sure you’re not consuming too much salt; minimize fried and junk food
- Minimize or avoid alcohol and caffeine
- Regularly keep your feet elevated during the day
Keep in mind that these are just ways to minimize high blood pressure and don’t necessarily mean you won’t get preeclampsia.
What are the Symptoms?
The scary thing about preeclampsia is that signs and symptoms rarely show up until you are into week 20 of your pregnancy. Typically, doctors won’t make a diagnosis before this time since the placenta is very active.
The most common symptom is high blood pressure. It’s also possible to have any of the following symptoms.
In the case of mild preeclampsia:
- High blood pressure
- Protein in your urine
- Water retention
In the case of severe preeclampsia:
- Blurred vision
- Bruise easily
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain in the upper right abdomen
- Shortness of breath
- Unable to tolerate bright light
- Urinating in small amounts
As said before, preeclampsia can go on with no apparent symptoms and you could be feeling completely fine. This is why your healthcare provider should check your blood pressure during every prenatal visit, as it’s the most common symptom. If your blood pressure is high, they may follow up with a urine test for your protein levels and/or other necessary blood tests.
Preeclampsia usually occurs in the last trimester of your pregnancy but there are instances where it happens in the middle of your second trimester, during labor, or even up to six weeks after delivery. During pregnancy, preeclampsia can affect the placenta’s functioning, thus affecting your baby’s growth and birth weight if left untreated.
These are the treatment choices or recommendations your healthcare provider might make depending on the circumstances.
If your preeclampsia is mild and your baby has not developed fully enough to be delivered:
- Advise you to include more protein in your diet and reduce salt intake
- Increase your prenatal checkups so they are more frequent
- Recommend drinking 8 glasses of water or more a day
- Suggest you rest more and lie on your left side so that the baby’s weight doesn’t press down on your major blood vessels
If your preeclampsia is severe and your baby has not developed fully enough to be delivered:
- Advise changes to your diet
- Prescribe blood pressure medications
- Prescribe magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures
- Put you on bed rest
- Recommend supplements
At the end of the day, these treatment options only manage the symptoms. If your baby has developed enough, your healthcare provider may consider delivering your baby. Otherwise, they will try to manage your symptoms and delay the delivery of your baby closer to your due date, or at the very least, to week 34 of your pregnancy as much as possible.
If you feel like you have symptoms such as a difference in your vision, swelling in your hands or face, shortness of breath, severe headaches, nausea/vomiting, or stomach pain after you have given birth, see your healthcare provider right away.
This is a rare case where you might have postpartum preeclampsia. Your treatment course would be a prescription for blood pressure or an IV dose of magnesium sulfate. Your healthcare provider would also advise you on any precautions regarding breastfeeding while on either medication, but these are generally considered safe.
If left untreated, preeclampsia can evolve into serious conditions such as HELLP Syndrome for the mother. In this condition, you will have problems with Hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells), Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets (HELLP). It will also cause eclampsia (the onset of seizures) and organ damage.
Now, this might sound like a very terrifying condition, but it is completely possible to give birth to a healthy baby with preeclampsia. Don’t stress yourself about it. If you feel like you might have any of the symptoms or are feeling a little off, see your healthcare provider right away to get the correct attention you need.