What is Preeclampsia?

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Preeclampsia is a potentially serious condition that can develop during pregnancy or postpartum. While the exact cause of preeclampsia is still being researched and debated, the symptoms of the condition are important and easy to learn. I hope this article will help you understand this condition that can affect the life and well-being of pregnant and postpartum women and their babies.

What is preeclampsia?

What are the symptoms of preeclampsia?

What is the treatment of preeclampsia?

What are the symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia?

What are the risk factors for preeclampsia? 

What is Preeclampsia?

When a pregnant woman goes for regular prenatal checkups, one of the conditions her caregiver is watching for is preeclampsia. If that word is unfamiliar to you, it is pronounced [pre-e-CLAMP-si-a]. That medical condition only occurs to pregnant and postpartum women, and it is usually diagnosed when the pregnant woman’s blood pressures rises to a significant degree and there is an excessive amount of protein detected in her urine.

Preeclampsia can affect both mother and baby. For the mother, liver and kidney function can be compromised, and she can develop blood-clotting issues. It can also cause fluid to build up on her lungs, cause maternal seizures or a stroke, and other things. Because preeclampsia can reduce the bloodflow to the uterus, the baby’s growth can be suppressed and cause intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR). Premature birth is also a complication of preeclampsia, which brings its own series of problems. There are other complications that preeclampsia brings to the baby as well.

The cause of preeclampsia is not known, but recent statistics show that it affects 5-8% of all births in the United States. While most women with preeclampsia have a healthy baby and a healthy birth and recovery, some women experience severe, even life-threatening complications. Getting appropriate medical care as early as possible is the best way to protect mom and baby from the serious complications of the disease, and that requires knowing the symptoms of preeclampsia.

What are the symptoms that indicate possible preeclampsia?

Headaches, sensitivity to light, blurry vision, seeing flashing spots, seeing auras, experiencing nausea or abdominal pain, burning behind the sternum (breastbone), shortness of breath, anxiety and confusion are all symptoms that can indicate preeclampsia. 

Keep in mind that some women will go from mild symptoms to severe symptoms very quickly. Any of the symptoms I have mentioned, in any degree, indicate a need to get qualified medical advice as soon as possible. 

If you learn that your symptoms are not related to preeclampsia, then no harm has been done by checking. But if you have preeclampsia and delay getting treatment, serious harm can be done.  You have nothing to lose by getting evaluated by your medical caregiver.

What is the treatment for preeclampsia?

Treatment for preeclampsia can vary somewhat depending on the mother’s age and overall health, and the gestational age and health of the baby. Treatment includes monitoring the mother’s blood pressure and doing lab tests to check the function of her kidneys, liver and blood-clotting ability. The preborn baby’s growth and health will also be monitored. 

Sometimes, medications are used to lower the maternal blood pressure, and the pregnant woman will be carefully observed in the hospital to make sure that she is responding to the medication as desired. Signs of a potential stroke or possible seizure are also monitored. 

If the pregnancy has reached 37 weeks, the caregiver may consider delivering the baby, since preeclampsia often resolves for many women within 48 hours of giving birth. It can continue or develop postpartum, however, and the previously mentioned symptoms should be watched for. It is even possible for a woman to develop preeclampsia during delivery or as much as six-weeks postpartum. It is important to watch for the symptoms of preeclampsia even after the baby has been born.

What are the symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia?

  A consistently elevated blood pressure (140/90 mm/Hg – 160/110 mm/Hg), very bad headaches, blurry vision or dark spots in front of eyes, shortness of breath and pain in the stomach or upper right quadrant abdominal area (liver area) are all indicators of postpartum preeclampsia. 

If a woman experiences these symptoms at any point postpartum (even weeks after giving birth), she needs to be medically evaluated immediately. Be sure to mention the possibility of postpartum preeclampsia, in case the medical team overlooks that potential condition.

Because preeclampsia is commonly viewed as a pregnancy-related condition, it can be misdiagnosed in postpartum, and that can lead to very serious complications. In fact, the most serious complications of preeclampsia often occur during postpartum because this condition is frequently overlooked until the symptoms are severe.

What are the risk factors for developing preeclampsia?

Although preeclampsia is more likely to occur in first pregnancies, having a history of preeclampsia also increases chances of getting it again. Being pregnant with more than one baby can also increase the risk. 

Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more (in other words, being overweight) and being over 40 years old or under 18 years old increases the likelihood of developing preeclampsia. 

Another risk factor is the existence of diabetes or a kidney disease in the expectant mom. If those conditions are pregnant, the caregiver should pay very close attention to potential symptoms of preeclampsia. 

In summary, preeclampsia is a potentially serious but treatable illness and the symptoms of preeclampsia should never be overlooked, regardless of when those symptoms appear–whether in pregnancy or postpartum. Understanding the risk factors and symptoms of preeclampsia can help women know to seek medical care early so they can have a healthier and safer pregnancy and postpartum.


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