As an expectant mother, you would want your pregnancy to progress as smoothly as possible. But not everything may go as planned always. Certain conditions that affect you or your baby may put either of you or both at risk during pregnancy. One such complication is preeclampsia, which can add to the risks of pregnancy when not addressed in time.
In this MomJunction post, we tell you about preeclampsia, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.
What Is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication that is identified by excessively high blood pressure. The condition is also associated with high protein content in the urine of pregnant women. It usually occurs after the 20th week and affects around 8% of pregnancies. In some women, the condition disappears after pregnancy, but in others, the symptoms may appear even after delivery (1).
This health complication is also known as preeclamptic toxemia or toxemia and is classified into two (2):
- Mild preeclampsia is when the blood pressure ≥ 140mm Hg or more systolic, or ≥ 90mm Hg or higher diastolic. It could also develop in women who have never had blood pressure issues in the past.
- Severe preeclampsia is when the blood pressure ≥ 160mm Hg or higher systolic, or ≥ 100mm Hg or higher diastolic.
Keep reading to know what causes this condition during pregnancy.
What Are The Causes Of Preeclampsia?
There could be a number of factors causing preeclampsia, but there isn’t any scientific evidence pointing to one or some of these reasons. Some theories surrounding the causes of preeclampsia are mentioned below.
- Increase in blood volume: When the blood volume increases in pregnancy, the body might not accept it normally. In such cases, the blood pressure increases and the signs of preeclampsia start to appear (3).
- Abnormalities in the placenta: Some studies have shown a connection between placenta disorders and the development of preeclampsia. However, more research is being done on this subject (4).
- Pre-existing conditions: Some health conditions such as kidney disorder, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, or sickle cell disorder could also cause preeclampsia (5).
- Dietary changes: Certain changes such as insufficient calcium and protein in the diet, or excess of vitamin D or fish oil could lead to preeclampsia (5).
- Others: Obesity, autoimmune disorders, problems with blood vessels, and a weak immune system could be other reasons.
Identifying the signs and symptoms of this condition is essential to treat it in time and avoid any complications.
Signs And Symptoms Of Preeclampsia
There aren’t many obvious symptoms in the case of mild preeclampsia. Even if there are any, they could be mistaken as a minor stomach ache, heartburn, or baby’s kicks. But in case of severe preeclampsia, the symptoms could be:
- Breathing problems
- Nausea and vomiting
- Frequent or intense headache
- Pain on the right side of the tummy
- Swelling of the hands, feet, and face
- Changes in vision such as blurry vision, light sensitivity, or temporary blindness
Although common, preeclampsia does not affect all pregnant women.
Who Is At Risk Of Preeclampsia?
The likelihood of developing preeclampsia is more in:
- Women who are carrying twins or multiples (3)
- Women with a family history of preeclampsia; so, if your mother or sister had preeclampsia, then you could probably get it too
- Women who are older than 35 years
Ethnicity, socioeconomic status, environmental, and nutritional factors could also play a role in the women developing preeclampsia.
Preeclampsia can affect both the mom and the baby and should be diagnosed sooner than later to prevent the complications. Find out more about it next.
What Are The Effects Of Preeclampsia?
On the mother:
- Severe preeclampsia could progress to eclampsia quickly, posing a greater threat to the mother and also to the baby
- There are risks of coma and seizures too for the mother
On the baby:
- Could result in a lack of nutrients and oxygen, leading to problems with fetal growth
- Premature birth or stillbirth (6)
The timely diagnosis followed by treatment can prevent these complications.
How Is Preeclampsia Diagnosed?
The doctor will first look for any symptoms or signs of preeclampsia such as swelling, sudden weight gain, and changes in your blood pressure. If the blood pressure is too high, or they suspect preeclampsia, these tests will be suggested (7).
- Blood test: This test will get the complete blood count and antiphospholipid, and checks partial thromboplastin time (time taken for blood to clot), all of which are related to preeclampsia.
- Urine test: Protein in the urine and the ratio of protein to creatinine is checked to see if the woman has developed preeclampsia. That said, not all women with protein in the urine
- Non-laboratory tests: Non-stress test and ultrasonography are the two tests that monitor the health of the baby and the mom while checking for any conditions such as preeclampsia.
Based on the diagnosis, the doctor will prescribe the appropriate course of treatment.
How Is Preeclampsia Treated?
In the case of mild preeclampsia, all that you may need is bed rest. You may also be asked to lower your blood pressure and improve the blood flow by managing the diet and lifestyle better. However, when the condition becomes cautious or severe, other treatment options are recommended (8) (9) (10).
- Medications: Doctors may prescribe medicines to lower blood pressure and prevent the onset of seizures. Medicines could also be prescribed to make the baby’s lungs ready before the delivery.
In case of severe preeclampsia, doctors may prescribe antihypertensive therapy and also check for symptoms of eclampsia. In some cases, intravenous labetalol is also prescribed for maintaining blood pressure. However, the dosage and duration vary from one woman to another.
- Bed rest and monitoring: In some cases of preeclampsia, medications and bed rest become necessary, along with continuous monitoring of the mother and the baby.
- Delivery: If the woman is not responding to medication, then delivery is suggested regardless of the gestation age. This is done under constant monitoring, to protect both the mother and the baby. Medications are also administered in case of abnormal blood pressure levels.
Preeclampsia can also be prevented if detected early in pregnancy.
How Can You Prevent Preeclampsia?
There are a few ways to prevent preeclampsia, although not all of them are highly recommended.
- Prenatal care is essential to diagnose and treat the condition promptly.
- In the case of calcium deficiency, calcium supplementation helps to reduce the risks of preeclampsia (11).
- Overweight and obese women should try to reduce weight by following a proper diet and exercise regimen.
- A low dose of aspirin is another preventive measure suggested for pregnant women to reduce the risk of preeclampsia (12).
It is essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle before and after you get pregnant. Ensure that you do not miss any regular visits to the doctor, so that any complications, including preeclampsia can be diagnosed early in pregnancy.
Do you have any experiences to share with our readers? Let us know in the comment section.
2. L. K. Wagner; Diagnosis and Management of Preeclampsia; American Academy of Family Physician (2004)
3. Preeclampsia; U.S. National Library of Medicine
4. J. M. Roberts and C. Escudero; The placenta in preeclampsia; Pregnancy Hypertension: An International Journal of Women’s Cardiovascular Health (2012)
5. FAQs; Preeclampsia Foundation
6. What are the risks of preeclampsia & eclampsia to the fetus?; U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
7. Pre-eclampsia; labtestsonline.org
8. Pre-Eclampsia; British Columbia Health Link
9. G. M. Peres, M. Mariana, and E. Cairrao; Pre-Eclampsia and Eclampsia: An Update on the Pharmacological Treatment Applied in Portugal; Journal of Cardiovascular Development and Disease (2017)
10. Preeclampsia and Eclampsia; Cedars-Sinai
11. Prevention and treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia; World Health Organization (2011)
12. Low-Dose Aspirin Use During Pregnancy; The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists