Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure

nurse checks pregnant woman's blood pressure

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is defined as high blood pressure during pregnancy and only some women develop it. If it starts after 20 weeks into the pregnancy it’s called gestational hypertension. When uncontrolled, it can lead to many complications. The condition usually goes away after delivery.

Preeclampsia is severe high blood pressure during pregnancy accompanied by other medical warning signs. The problem affects 1 in 25 pregnancies in the U.S.

Most women deliver healthy babies and fully recover after preeclampsia. Yet in some cases, the condition can be life-threatening to the mother and unborn baby.

Preeclampsia typically begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It can cause liver or kidney damage and may double a woman’s chances for future heart failure and other ailments.

How is preeclampsia diagnosed?

Regular prenatal care helps catch the early stages of preeclampsia. High blood pressure is an important sign that preeclampsia may be developing. Testing may be done to check the mother’s urine, blood and physical health. Ultrasound and fetal monitoring of the baby may be necessary.

After 20 weeks of pregnancy, other signs of preeclampsia are:

  • Protein in urine (proteinuria)

    or any of the following

  • New development of decreased platelets
  • Kidney or liver problems
  • Fluid in the lungs and difficulty breathing
  • Signs of brain trouble such as headaches, seizures or visual disturbances

What are the symptoms of preeclampsia?

Not all women have noticeable symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Headaches
  • Changes in vision
  • Abdominal pain
  • Rapid swelling (edema)
  • What raises the risk of preeclampsia?

Some factors often linked to preeclampsia include:

  • First pregnancy
  • Previous pregnancy with preeclampsia
  • Chronic hypertension, chronic kidney disease or both
  • Tendency to form blood clots
  • Pregnancy with triplets
  • In vitro fertilization
  • Family history of preeclampsia
  • Obesity
  • Age 40 years or older

How is preeclampsia treated?

Management of preeclampsia is based on several factors, including the overall health of the mother and the progress of the disease.

Delivery of the baby is the only cure for preeclampsia. To prevent the risk of severe maternal complications, preterm delivery may be necessary.

At 34 weeks of pregnancy or later, experts recommend delivery as soon as medically possible. If the pregnancy is at fewer than 34 weeks, drugs might be prescribed to improve the baby’s lungs before delivery.

Preeclampsia symptoms usually go away within six weeks of delivery.

How can women reduce their risk of preeclampsia?

A health care professional will monitor mother and baby at regular prenatal visits. There is no proven way to prevent gestational hypertension or preeclampsia. No test will predict these conditions. But regular tracking will be needed to check blood pressure and urine levels of protein.

For a healthy pregnancy:

  • Get early and regular medical care.
  • Track blood pressure at home if advised.
  • Manage blood pressure by limiting salt intake and getting regular physical activity.

Women with preeclampsia are more likely to develop hypertension and diabetes later in life. Having the condition also increases the odds of heart failure, research shows. This is especially true if preeclampsia happens in more than one pregnancy. So be sure to tell other health care professionals if you have a history of preeclampsia.