What is preeclampsia?

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According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 25 pregnancies are affected by a pregnancy complication known as preeclampsia. If left undetected and untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious and even fatal problems for a mother and her unborn child. Keep reading to learn more. 

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia (pre-e-CLAMP-si-a) is defined as persistent high blood pressure that develops during pregnancy, usually after the 20th week of gestation. In rare instances, it can also develop after pregnancy during the postpartum period.

If left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to complications for a mother and her baby, including:

  • Premature birth and low birth weight (for the baby)
  • Stroke, seizures (eclampsia), the need for medical induction of labor and placental abruption, in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus (for the mother)


Signs and symptoms of preeclampsia

People who develop preeclampsia during pregnancy may experience the following signs and symptoms, according to the CDC: 

  • Persistent headache
  • Vision changes, including blurry vision or seeing spots
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sudden swelling (edema) in the face or hands
  • Sudden weight gain 
  • Trouble breathing 
  • Kidney or liver problems
  • Low blood platelets (thrombocytopenia)
  • Increased protein in the urine and/or decreased urine output
  • Fluid build-up in the lungs
  • Seizures or coma that are not caused by other underlying brain conditions (eclampsia)

Not everyone with preeclampsia will experience any noticeable symptoms early on—which is why routine prenatal care from a licensed health care provider is so important. A doctor can diagnose preeclampsia and initiate treatment even if a pregnant person is asymptomatic. Diagnosis usually relies on several approaches, including ultrasounds and blood and urine tests.

Preeclampsia causes and risk factors

It is unknown exactly why preeclampsia happens. Current research suggests that dysfunction of blood vessels within the placenta (the organ that brings nutrients from the mother to the baby during pregnancy) could impair blood circulation in the placenta and disrupt blood pressure regulation in the mother.  

It's important to understand that anyone who becomes pregnant can develop preeclampsia. However, some women may be more at risk if they have: 

  • A family history of preeclampsia
  • A personal history of preeclampsia or other complications in previous pregnancies
  • Underlying medical conditions like chronic high blood pressure, kidney disease, obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disorders
  • Being pregnant with multiple babies (e.g., twins, triplets) 
  • Being pregnant at age 35 or older
  • Use of in vitro fertilization (IVF) 
  • First pregnancy with a current partner

How preeclampsia is treated

Preeclampsia is considered a serious pregnancy complication and requires close and more frequent monitoring from a woman's prenatal team of care providers. Treatment depends on factors such as how far along a woman is in her pregnancy and how severe her condition is. 

Common interventions may include:

  • Medications that help manage blood pressure and assist with fetal lung development
  • Home blood pressure monitoring and if necessary admission to a hospital for closer management
  • Medical induction of labor to deliver the baby earlier, either vaginally or via cesarean delivery (C-section) 
  • Intravenous (IV) administration of magnesium during and after labor to prevent seizures (eclampsia)

Are you currently pregnant or trying to become pregnant?

Pregnant individuals of all backgrounds—as well as their babies—deserve quality care from a dedicated team of health care providers. If you're looking for personalized pregnancy or postpartum support or have a question about preeclampsia, find a doctor at SIU Medicine today. 

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