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Preeclampsia: what you need to know

Preeclampsia is a serious pregnancy complication. It can appear at any point in pregnancy, but it’s usually diagnosed after week 20 The onset can be slow or sudden. If a parent-to-be has high blood pressure (hypertension) and at least one other symptom, like protein in the urine or impaired kidney or liver function, a preeclampsia diagnosis is likely.

If left untreated, preeclampsia can have devastating consequences for both you and your baby. That said, most people who receive early detection and treatment for this condition give birth to healthy infants.

What are the effects of preeclampsia?

The early warning signs of preeclampsia range from silent to subtle to severe. You might experience headaches, visual changes, nausea, upper abdominal pain or heartburn, shortness of breath, swelling, or dizziness. Since these can also be normal pregnancy symptoms, it can be hard to tell what is cause for concern. However, if these signs are accompanied by high blood pressure, it could mean you have preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia can make it difficult for the placenta to receive nutrients and pass them along to your growing baby. Sometimes the first sign of preeclampsia is that the baby isn’t growing as expected. It can also result in placental abruption, a potentially fatal complication in which the placenta detaches from the uterus.

The most severe outcome of preeclampsia is when it isn’t treated and turns into eclampsia, which means the parent has seizures. Eclampsia is a medical emergency, as it can be life-threatening to the expecting parent and their baby.

What are the risk factors for developing preeclampsia?

Any pregnant person can develop preeclampsia, though some folks are at higher risk than others. Here are some of the risk factors for preeclampsia:

  • Chronic hypertension
  • Family or personal history of preeclampsia
  • Obesity
  • Age, either adolescent or over 40
  • Diabetes

How do you test for preeclampsia?

Most providers check blood pressure and for protein in urine at every in-person appointment no matter what your risk factors are. If you have risk factors for preeclampsia, you may also be asked to check your blood pressure at home. If your blood pressure or urine test suggests a problem, you’ll likely get additional monitoring for your blood pressure and your baby, as well as lab tests that can provide more information.

How do you treat preeclampsia?

The only way to cure preeclampsia is to give birth. When preeclampsia appears late in pregnancy, this is often the safest option. But when it appears earlier in pregnancy, you and your medical team will have to weigh the risks of continuing the pregnancy and the risks of a premature birth. In milder cases, preeclampsia can be monitored at home or in the hospital without an urgent delivery. But in severe cases, sometimes preterm birth is necessary. Treatment before birth may include bedrest, blood pressure lowering medications, steroids to speed up fetal lung development, and magnesium sulfate infusions, which help to prevent eclampsia.

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
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