Preeclampsia: Be aware of this silent condition during pregnancy

June 13, 2019 | by Jill Moran, MD
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

It can be difficult to know what’s normal during pregnancy. Some conditions are “silent” or have symptoms that can be mistaken as normal signs of pregnancy, making them more dangerous.

Most women can’t feel their blood pressure rising, but high blood pressure, or hypertension (i.e., a blood pressure of 140/90 or greater), is an important red flag of preeclampsia. A serious disorder that affects 5-8 percent of pregnancies, preeclampsia usually occurs after 20 weeks gestation, and up to six weeks after delivering a baby.

Aside from high blood pressure, preeclampsia is also characterized by an abnormal amount of protein in the urine. Many women suffering from preeclampsia don’t feel sick, so proper prenatal care and good communication with your doctor are essential to detect and manage the condition.

What are the warning signs?

Some preeclampsia warning signs that indicate a severe or worsening condition include:

  • Swelling of the face or hands
  • Sudden weight gain
  • A headache that won’t go away
  • Changes in vision, blurred, seeing spots, light sensitivity
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or shoulder
  • Nausea and vomiting in the second half of pregnancy
  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath

If you notice any of the above signs, get immediate medical attention. Upper abdominal pain or shoulder pain may be a sign of HELLP syndrome, one of the most severe forms of preeclampsia that can be life-threatening. Its symptoms are sometimes mistaken for gastritis or the flu.

Risk factors

While the true cause of preeclampsia remains unknown, the following may increase the risk of developing the condition:

  • A first-time pregnancy
  • Previous preeclampsia or family history of preeclampsia
  • Carrying multiple babies
  • Being younger than 20 years and older than age 40
  • Having high blood pressure, kidney disease or diabetes (type 1 or type 2) prior to pregnancy
  • Obesity

Treatment

If preeclampsia is not treated quickly and properly, it can lead to serious complications for mom and baby. If you have mild preeclampsia, your doctor may recommend you start seeing him/her for check-ups once or twice a week.

You may need to do a daily kick count to keep track of the baby’s movements. You may also need to measure your blood pressure at home (do it at the same time each day, in the same position).

If you develop hypertension in pregnancy (with or without a diagnosis of preeclampsia), your doctor may advise you to deliver your baby at 37 weeks, which is the start of a term gestational age. If you have severe preeclampsia and you’re at least 34 weeks, your doctor may recommend you deliver your baby.

If you’re not yet 34 weeks along, you may need to be hospitalized to control your blood pressure, and so you and your baby’s condition can be closely monitored. You may also be given medication to prevent seizures.

Preeclampsia usually goes away within 48 hours of delivering a baby, although some woman get worse before they get better.

How can you lower your risk?

Currently, there is no sure way to prevent preeclampsia, but you can try to lower your risk. Before getting pregnant, get other medical conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes, under control. Try to achieve a healthy weight if you’re overweight.

Once pregnant, proper prenatal care is essential to detecting preeclampsia early. At every OB-GYN visit, you should weigh in, have your blood pressure checked, and have your urine tested for protein. Prior to 16 weeks, if you have preeclampsia risk factors, your doctor many recommend you begin taking low-dose aspirin once daily.

Also, during pregnancy:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Avoid excessive salt, processed foods, refined sugars and caffeine.
  • Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
  • Eliminate alcohol and stop smoking.
  • Report all medications you’re taking to your OB-GYN, and don’t take anything not prescribed by your doctor (including dietary supplements).
  • Get enough rest.

The most important thing to remember with preeclampsia is to listen to your body. If something doesn't feel right, let your doctor know right away. If preeclampsia is detected early and treated, it can prevent complications for both mother and baby.

Learn more about pregnancy and baby services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

7 steps to take before you start trying for a baby

What’s normal during pregnancy

Tips to stay healthy during pregnancy

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