Preeclampsia: What New and Expecting Mothers Need to Know?
You may have read about it, and your doctor may have even warned you about it, but many women often don’t know that they’re suffering from preeclampsia until they’re hospitalized. Preeclampsia is a health condition that affects 1 in 20 pregnant women worldwide every year. It is the most common pregnancy complication, and it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms.
Preeclampsia is a dangerous pregnancy complication that is characterized by unusually high blood pressure, the presence of abnormal proteins in the urine, and signs of damage to other organs. The other organs typically affected by preeclampsia are the liver and kidneys. Untreated, the condition can be dangerous to both the mother and the child.
What Causes Preeclampsia?
It’s still not entirely clear what causes preeclampsia. Incidences of the condition have been rising in the United States since the 1990s, and it’s suspected that this is because of the rise in other conditions, like obesity and diabetes, that can contribute to higher chances of predisposition for preeclampsia.
Doctors have been searching for a direct cause for preeclampsia and have found no definite answer. As of now, the only treatment for preeclampsia is the delivery of the baby. It can be difficult to determine when delivery is most appropriate — doctors must weigh a variety of factors when making the decision about when delivery is best for each mother. Considerations include the severity of preeclampsia in the mother and the maturity of the child.
Untreated, preeclampsia can lead to seizures due to hypertension. At this point, the condition is considered eclampsia. Treatment is focused on avoiding full onset of eclampsia.
Symptoms of Preeclampsia
Preeclampsia typically develops during the third trimester. The first signs of preeclampsia are high blood pressure and the presence of protein in urine (proteinuria). Although you likely won’t notice these symptoms yourself, your doctor will likely discover these things during your regular prenatal appointments.
Because between 10-15 percent of pregnant women experience high blood pressure, the presence of this condition alone is not enough to determine that a woman has preeclampsia. However, if high blood pressure occurs alongside proteinuria, this is a good indicator of preeclampsia.
If preeclampsia is left untreated, it can lead to a variety of serious and life-threatening conditions. As the condition progresses, it’s typical to experience:
- Blurry vision
- Reduced blood platelet levels
- Reduced urination due to water retention
- Weight gain due to water retention
- Pain below the ribs on the right side of the body
- Shortness of breath
- Malaise or fatigue
Another concern during preeclampsia is the restriction of fetal growth due to reduced blood supply to the placenta.
Rare but advanced symptoms of preeclampsia include:
- Seizures (eclampsia)
- Kidney failure
- HELLP syndrome (a blood clotting and liver disorder)
One of the biggest concerns when preeclampsia develops is protecting the baby until it is safe for the mother to deliver. Children with mothers who have preeclampsia frequently need to be delivered prematurely. Treatment with corticosteroids can help rapidly develop the baby’s lungs, making premature delivery safer, and may also help temporarily improve the mother’s health to extend her pregnancy.
It’s thought that HELLP syndrome is variation of preeclampsia. This condition is a combination of low platelet count, hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells), and elevated liver enzymes. Symptoms of HELLP syndrome often resemble preeclampsia, and the condition can be difficult to diagnose. HELLP syndrome can onset as a symptom of preeclampsia, or can occur on its own.
HELLP syndrome is much more uncommon than preeclampsia, affecting less than 1 percent of pregnancies. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of women with preeclampsia will also develop HELLP syndrome. Predispositions for developing HELLP are similar to those for developing preeclampsia, and they include advanced maternal age, high blood pressure, or a history of preeclampsia. The symptoms of HELLP are similar to that of the flu. If you ever experience flu-like symptoms during pregnancy, it’s important to visit your doctor right away.
The symptoms of HELLP syndrome typically resolve quickly after delivery, usually within two to three days. The biggest risk of HELLP syndrome is to the baby, as most baby’s whose mothers develop HELLP syndrome must be delivered early. Babies delivered prior to 37 weeks will need monitoring at the hospital until they are ready to go home.
Prevention and Awareness
There’s an important consideration for preeclampsia that’s often overlooked. While in most cases, preeclampsia develops in the second or third trimester of pregnancy, it continues to be a risk for women up to six weeks postpartum. In the busy and exciting time following childbirth, medical care tends to be focused heavily on the infant, and health concerns for the mother can unintentionally fall by the wayside.
It’s important to stay aware of any health issues or symptoms that could indicate preeclampsia for mothers who are soon expecting or have recently given birth. Swelling was often used as an early warning sign of preeclampsia, but due to how common this symptom is among pregnant women, it is no longer considered to be an indicator of the condition.
If the mother experiences pitting edema (swelling characterized by lasting marks if the swollen area is pressed), this might be a surer sign of preeclampsia. Other symptoms include weight gain over four pounds in one week (a sign of water retention), dizziness, and difficulties seeing or thinking clearly.
Certain factors do make some women more predisposed to preeclampsia, such as:
- Preexisting hypertension
- Family history of the condition
- Abnormal placental development
- Multiple gestation
First-time mothers, mothers in their teens, and mothers over 40 are also at risk of increased chances of preeclampsia.
Some research has shown that regularly taking Aspirin after the 12th week of pregnancy may reduce the risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women who are predisposed to the condition. There are no vitamins or supplements associated with a reduction of risk. Neither bed rest nor exercise have been found to contribute to a positive impact on the incidence of the condition. Recently, it’s been found that mothers with a history of preeclampsia are more likely to develop hardened and narrow arteries later in life.
Studies have been conducted that suggest that preeclampsia can be triggered by immunological intolerance of a child’s father. It’s been tentatively suggested that exposure to the father’s seminal fluid prior to conception may reduce the chances of preeclampsia. Exposure prior to pregnancy may reduce the chances of preeclampsia by exposing the mother to immune factors necessary to induce immunological tolerance in their partners.
The most important factor in preventing harm from preeclampsia is awareness. Continuing to consider the mother’s health a priority after birth, sharing information about preeclampsia, and being aware of the risk factors are all ways to reduce risks from preeclampsia. The effects of preeclampsia impact both mothers and their children, so sharing information about the condition and increasing awareness can help many.
If you have more questions about preeclampsia, visit The Preeclampsia Foundation or talk to your doctor.