What is Preeclampsia?

Pregnancy should be an exciting time in a woman’s life, prompting images of nursery decorating, baby showers, and picking out names. However, creating a new life and being pregnant is a big undertaking for the human body that sometimes can lead to other health conditions that require close monitoring by your health care team. One of the more serious conditions, called preeclampsia, is a disorder that typically occurs in the second half of pregnancy and up to six months postpartum, which can affect the mother and the unborn baby. Signs can include swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches, or changes in vision — though it is important to note that some women may not experience any symptoms but will still have the disease. If left untreated, it can lead to high blood pressure, impaired kidney and liver function, pulmonary edema, seizures, and other blood clotting problems. Preeclampsia often arrives silently, so identification and diagnosis is often done through screening and conversations between the patient and health care team.

Who Gets Preeclampsia?

While exact causes are still unknown, there are some risk factors that are generally agreed upon. Experts do know that it is more likely to occur during your first pregnancy, so even if you think you are healthy, routine antenatal care is very important. Other risk factors include those who under 20 years old or over 35, obesity, or those who have lupus or other autoimmune disorders. Additionally, women carrying multiples and those with a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease are also at risk. Unfortunately, those who have gotten pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, African-American women, and those with polycystic ovarian syndrome may also be predisposed to preeclampsia once pregnant. While it can be frustrating to not understand the causes of preeclampsia and what you can do to avoid it, just know that working closely with your health care team, making your routine appointments, and flagging any complaints or strange issues you’ve noticed can lead to early identification of pregnancy conditions and keep you and your baby healthy.

How is it Diagnosed?

While the types of symptoms will vary from woman to woman, there are a few key markers that can be red flags for potentially having preeclampsia. For blood pressure, a red flag would be a BP of 140/90 or greater. Urine tests that show protein in the urine over 300 mg may also be a sign. Additionally, if these results are also paired with rapid weight gain (such as 3-5 pounds or more in a week), or swelling in the face or hands, there is a likely chance that you have preeclampsia. You will probably be scheduled for more frequent appointments and monitoring to make sure the baby is getting enough blood flow and growing normally and that your blood pressure stays in a safe range.

What Happens Once I Have It?

Preeclampsia can be dangerous if left untreated. However, good care and screening measures can delay many of the adverse outcomes and prompt treatment can save lives. The best “treatment” is actual delivery of the baby, as the condition usually resolves around 48 hours after giving birth. Since this may not always be an option for those who are diagnosed before 37 weeks gestation, other factors will guide your health provider’s decisions about how to manage the condition — together with YOU as the patient. Working with your care team, your provider may decide that anti-hypertensive drugs are a good option to bring down your blood pressure. They will also continue to monitor you closely to ensure your kidneys and liver are functioning and note if any indications of a seizure about to occur. Sometimes, you may be treated with magnesium sulfate, which is an anticonvulsant specifically used in preeclampsia.

Are you an expectant mother looking for perinatal help during your (high-risk) pregnancy? Patients can ask their Ob/Gyns about teaming up with our Arizona perinatal specialists at Valley Perinatal Services. You or your physician can contact us online or call (480) 756-6000.