Preeclampsia: It’s a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure that poses risks to both mother and baby. Maybe it’s something you’re currently facing or maybe it’s a condition you’ve spoken to your doctor about. Odds are you’ve heard this medical term at some point during your pregnancy.
According to the APA, preeclampsia affects at least 5-8% of pregnancies1 , and there are a lot of misconceptions around the signs, symptoms and treatment of what can often feel like an overwhelming and scary diagnosis. So what do you need to know to put your mind at ease? Let’s get down to the facts about preeclampsia.
What is preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia, sometimes known as toxemia, is a pregnancy (and sometimes postpartum) condition that is characterized by high blood pressure and signs that another organ system, most often the liver and the kidneys, may not be working normally.
The APA1 reports that preeclampsia most often occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but can sometimes develop post-delivery, a condition called postpartum preeclampsia. Preeclampsia often occurs in women whose blood pressure had previously been normal. While many women with preeclampsia go on to have healthy babies, when left untreated, the condition can lead to serious complications for both you and your little one, so it’s important to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia during and after your pregnancy.
Preeclampsia signs and symptoms
Unlike many conditions during pregnancy, preeclampsia signs aren’t always obvious if you’re not monitoring your blood pressure regularly—which is why it’s extremely important to go to all of your pre- or postnatal doctor appointments, even if you’re not feeling anything out of the ordinary.
A rise in blood pressure is often the first sign of preeclampsia, reports the APA1 . This can happen slowly over time, or come on suddenly, which is why you’ll see that blood pressure monitor rolled out at every doctor’s appointment during your pregnancy and after you deliver.
There are two categories of preeclampsia that your doctor or midwife will be monitoring you for: mild preeclampsia and severe preeclampsia.
According to the Mayo Clinic2 , signs and symptoms of mild preeclampsia include:
High blood pressure. A single high blood pressure reading (especially after you’ve rushed around to make it to that doctor’s appointment on time!) doesn’t mean you have preeclampsia. Your doctor will be looking for several high readings—this usually means a reading that exceeds 140/90 mm HG2 , documented on two separate occasions, at least four hours apart.
Water retention. Some swelling is completely normal during and after your pregnancy, but if you’re noticing something outside of what’s normal for you—particularly excessive swelling in your legs, hands or “especially the face,” according to Dr. Sara Twogood, board certified ob-gyn—you should reach out to your doctor. Sudden weight gain of about 2 to 5 pounds in a week could also be a sign of preeclampsia.
Protein in your urine. Called proteinuria, this is something your healthcare provider will be checking for if preeclampsia is suspected. It’s still possible to have preeclampsia and never have protein in your urine, but it can be a sign of preeclampsia, which is why it’s worth a check.
Severe preeclampsia signs and symptoms include:
Headache. Headaches can be a normal part of pregnancy, but if you’re experiencing a headache that just won’t go away, it can be a sign of preeclampsia, and it’s definitely worth a call or visit to your provider.
Nausea. Beyond normal morning sickness, you should be on the lookout for excessive nausea, vomiting or dizziness, as these can all be signs of preeclampsia.
Vision changes. Any changes in vision, including light sensitivity, seeing spots or flashing lights, or experiencing blurred vision should immediately be reported to your healthcare provider for follow-up.
Abdominal pain. There’s nothing comfortable about carrying a baby for nine months, but if you’re feeling a sharp pain in your abdomen, especially on the right side near the ribs, or experiencing shortness of breath, that can be a red flag as a sign of preeclampsia.
Infrequent urination. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you notice changes in the way you’re urinating, especially if you’re noticing it’s a lot more infrequent than usual.
There’s no denying that pregnancy can be a stressful experience, especially if you’re dealing with an unforeseen diagnosis of preeclampsia. So what can you expect after you’re diagnosed?
Luckily thanks to medical advances, blood pressure medication and innovative monitoring options, there are lots of options to keep you and baby safe if you experience preeclampsia either during or after your pregnancy.
The best and most effective treatment for preeclampsia is delivery. If you’re close enough to your due date and your healthcare provider feels your baby is developed enough, you’ll most likely be headed to the delivery room as soon as possible and be scheduled for either an induction or a c-section.
How to treat preeclampsia
Increased monitoring. If you’re diagnosed with preeclampsia, your healthcare provider will want to keep a close eye on you and your baby. This may mean more frequent appointments for blood pressure checks, or even having to monitor your blood pressure at home. There may also be more tests, including blood tests, ultrasounds, dopplers and nonstress tests, on your horizon than there would be during a more typical pregnancy. In some cases, your doctor may want to hospitalize you for constant monitoring either for a specific period of time or until delivery.
Kick counts. Kick counts —keeping track of how often your baby moves over a certain period of time—are a way to keep track of baby’s daily activity in order to help you notice if there’s anything out of the ordinary going on. If you’ve been diagnosed with preeclampsia, you may be asked to do kick counts each day and report back the results back to your healthcare provider.
Blood pressure medication. Medications that help lower blood pressure, called antihypertensives, may be prescribed to help manage your blood pressure leading up to and after delivery. There are ones that are approved4 for use during pregnancy.
Steroids. Corticosteroids are useful in severe cases of preeclampsia. They can help improve your liver and platelet function and mature baby’s lungs in preparation for an early delivery.
Anti-seizure medication. Prescribed in order to reduce your risk of a seizure (one of the possible risks of preeclampsia if your blood pressure gets too high), medications like magnesium sulfate may be administered before or after delivery. Magnesium sulfate is often given intravenously either during delivery or immediately after. It’s not the most pleasant of drugs—common side effects can include drowsiness, flushing, sweating and headaches—and will interfere with your ability to breastfeed right away. But once your blood pressure returns to normal and you’re feeling a bit better, it shouldn’t have any effect on your long-term breastfeeding goals. Note: If your baby is exposed to magnesium sulfate, they may be listless at first. But this usually goes away as the magnesium sulfate clears from baby’s system.
Together, you and your healthcare provider will determine the best course of treatment for you and your baby.