If you’re pregnant, preeclampsia is a condition you’ve probably heard of and want to be mindful of. It’s a condition that occurs during pregnancy and is connected to a rise in blood pressure that can cause swelling. Preeclampsia is the most common pregnancy-related complication, at a rate of 1 in every 20 pregnancies, and typically occurs during the third trimester. We’re talking you through everything you need to know about preeclampsia, including what signs to look out for.
What is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a condition that affects 5% of pregnancies, with research suggesting it may be linked to a genetic component. The cause of preeclampsia is unknown, but it involves the blood vessels in the placenta. The issue with preeclampsia is that it doesn’tpresent with symptoms, but there are two early indicators – high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Preeclampsia is typically diagnosed with blood tests, fetal ultrasound, or a non-stress test.
Women often only find out about these during an antenatal doctor visit. Preeclampsia can lead to restricted growth for the fetus, as there is a reduced blood supply going to the placenta.
Having high blood pressure during pregnancy does not instantly mean you have preeclampsia, as up to 8% of pregnant women experience it. The most telling sign of preeclampsia is the presence of protein in your urine. Once preeclampsia sets in, it’s usually indicated by fluid retention. This condition results in swelling, which is already a common pregnancy symptom. The difference between general pregnancy swelling and preeclampsia is that the latter occurs suddenly and is more severe.
As preeclampsia progresses, you might experience symptoms like blurry vision, severe headaches, shortness of breath, vomiting, rapid weight gain, and pain on your right side.
What Causes Preeclampsia?
Research is ongoing to determine the exact cause of preeclampsia, but researchers have identified several factors as its likely cause. Preeclampsia is connected to placenta development, as the blood supply is decreased because of a narrowing of the blood vessels. Genetic factors, immune system problems, or insufficient blood flow to the uterus causes the narrowing of the blood vessels.
What Are the Dangers with Preeclampsia?
If your preeclampsia is not treated, it can develop into eclampsia, which is potentially life-threatening. Complications with preeclampsia are rare and can be avoided if you attend prenatal appointments. Potential complications include a coma, convulsions, and even death.
Other complications include placental abruption, where the placenta separates from the uterus and can put the baby or mother’s life in danger. It can also cause a reduction in blood flow to the placenta, which can slow down the growth of the baby and cause breathing difficulties and premature birth.
HEELP syndrome can become quickly life-threatening. HEELP means 'hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count' and is a liver and blood clotting disorder. It commonly happens immediately after birth, but it can occur after the 20th week of pregnancy, although this is rare. The only treatment for HEELP is to deliver the baby as soon as it is viable.
Preeclampsia leads to higher blood pressure for the mother, which comes with its own risks. It increases the likelihood of a stroke and can lead to severe bleeding or seizures.
Treatment of Preeclampsia
Preeclampsia will continue throughout the pregnancy until the baby is born, with symptoms ending a few weeks after delivery. The treatment of it revolves around trying to lower the mother’s blood pressure. If you have previously experienced preeclampsia during a previous pregnancy, you’ll be advised to attend more frequent prenatal appointments with your medical professionals.
Medication for preeclampsia includes antihypertensives to lower high blood pressure and anticonvulsants to treat severe cases and prevent seizures. Corticosteroids can be prescribed to improve platelet and liver functioning.
If preeclampsia occurs towards the end of the pregnancy, your doctor may advise an urgent delivery by induction or caesarean.
How Can I Prevent Preeclampsia?
As preeclampsia occurs in 5% of pregnanci, it may be something you’re cautious about and what to take active steps to avoid, especially if there is a history of it in your family. While you can’t fully prevent it, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of high blood pressure.
• Regularly exercise throughout your pregnancy.
• Drink the daily recommended 6 to 8 glasses of water.
• Remove added salt and fried food from your diet.
• Reduce caffeine intake and avoid alcohol.
• Rest throughout your pregnancy when possible.
What Factors Increase My Risk of Preeclampsia?
Several factors can increase your risk of preeclampsia. It usually revolves around your age, health, and the situation of your pregnancy.
• If it’s your first pregnancy, or there’s been a gap of ten years since your last pregnancy, you have an increased risk of preeclampsia. If the baby’s paternity is different from your previous pregnancies, you’ll also fall into this category.
• Preeclampsia is believed to be caused by genetic factors, so you’ll be at a higher risk if your mother or sister has had preeclampsia. If you have had a previous pregnancy with preeclampsia, you’ll have a greater likelihood of experiencing it in a later pregnancy.
• Teenage pregnancies and women over 40 are more likely to develop preeclampsia. It’s also more common in multiple pregnancies.
• If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or migraines, you are more at risk of preeclampsia. Research has also linked obesity to higher cases of preeclampsia.
After you give birth, you could experience high blood pressure and what is known as postpartum preeclampsia. This condition is rare and usually occurs within the first days or weeks after having a baby. The main symptoms are the same as antenatal preeclampsia. Postpartum preeclampsia is easier to treat with blood pressure medication, and you can be prescribed medication that will still allow you to breastfeed during your treatment.
While preeclampsia occurs in only 1 in 20 pregnancies, it’s something you want to be aware of and take active steps to prevent. The best way of taking pro-active steps is to attend your prenatal appointments and make your doctor aware of any factors that put you at a higher risk of preeclampsia.