Preeclampsia is a disease of the placenta that can occur in pregnant women. Typically, it develops late in the second trimester or in the third trimester, though it can occur earlier and may even develop shortly after delivery. Doctors identify preeclampsia because it causes high blood pressure and high protein levels in your urine. If you have preeclampsia, formerly called toxemia, what you might notice is swelling in your hands and face.
Preeclampsia needs treatment or it can lead to eclampsia, which is very dangerous to you and your developing babies. Women with preeclampsia who have seizures are considered to have eclampsia. This life-threatening condition can put you and your babies at risk, and in rare cases cause death.
There's no way to cure preeclampsia while pregnant, and that can be a scary prospect for moms-to-be. But you can help protect yourself by learning the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia and by seeing your doctor for regular prenatal care. When preeclampsia is caught early, it's easier to manage.
What Causes Preeclampsia?
No one knows why some women get preeclampsia. It results from a placenta that doesn't function properly, which may be caused by:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Environmental factors
You may be more at risk for preeclampsia if:
- You've had preeclampsia
- You have a multiple pregnancy (twins or more)
- You have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease
- This is your first pregnancy
- You are a teenager
- You are age 35 or older
- You were obese before you became pregnant
- Your mom or sister had preeclampsia
- Your partner's mother had preeclampsia
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia?
You should seek care right away if you have:
- Sudden and new swelling in your face, hands, and eyes; note that some feet and ankle swelling is normal during pregnancy
- Blood pressure greater than 130/80; the only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it measured by a blood pressure monitor.
- Sudden weight gain over 1 or 2 days
- Abdominal pain, especially in the upper right side
- Severe headaches
- A decrease in urine
- Blurry vision, flashing lights, and floaters
You can also have preeclampsia and not have any symptoms. That's why it's so important to see your doctor for regular blood pressure checks and urine tests.
How Can Preeclampsia Affect My Babies and Me?
Preeclampsia can cause rare but serious complications in moms-to-be, including:
- Water in the lungs
- Heart failure
- Reversible blindness
- Bleeding from the liver
- Bleeding after you've given birth
Preeclampsia can affect your babies if it prevents the placenta from getting enough blood to provide adequate food and oxygen. The result can be that your babies are born very small. Preeclampsia is also one of the leading causes of premature birth. Being premature puts babies at risk for many other health problems.
Preeclampsia can also cause the placenta to suddenly separate from the uterus, which is called placental abruption. This can cause stillbirth.
What Is the Treatment for Preeclampsia and Eclampsia?
Preeclampsia and eclampsia is to deliver your babies, and even then, the condition may persist for a few weeks following. As a precaution, your doctor will talk with you about when to deliver based on how far along your babies are, how well your babies are doing in your womb, and the severity of your preeclampsia.
If you have preeclampsia, your doctor may plan to deliver your babies early. Delivering babies by 36 to 37 weeks can keep preeclampsia from getting worse.
If your babies are not close to term, you and your doctor may be able to treat your preeclampsia until your babies have developed enough to be safely delivered. The closer the birth is to your due date, the better for your babies.
If you have mild preeclampsia, your doctor may prescribe:
- Bed rest either at home or in the hospital. You'll be asked to rest mostly on your left side.
- Careful observation with a fetal heart rate monitor and frequent ultrasounds
- Medicines to lower your blood pressure
- Blood and urine tests
Your doctor also may recommend that you stay in the hospital for closer monitoring. In the hospital you may be given:
- Medicine to help prevent seizures, lower your blood pressure, and prevent other problems
- Steroid injections to help your babies' lungs develop more quickly
For severe preeclampsia, your doctor may need to deliver your babies right away, even if you're not close to term.
After delivery, signs and symptoms of preeclampsia should go away within one to six weeks.