Symptoms of Preeclampsia in Pregnancy

By Sally Wadyka. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Preeclampsia is a result of a combination of maladies during pregnancy: high blood pressure, kidney problems, protein loss in the urine and/or problems with other organs.

“Delivery is the only known cure and is usually the approach when a patient is full-term,” says gynecologist Sharon Mikol, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Lakewood Hospital in Lakewood, Ohio.  

The causes of preeclampsia are not completely known, but one theory is that the immune system causes problems in the mom’s circulatory system and that of the placenta.

“It seems to be some sort of immune system reaction, possibly to the placenta, which causes the arteries to contract and narrow, leading to high blood pressure and decreased blood flow to vital organs including the uterus, brain, kidneys and liver,” says Mikol.

The condition may continue to affect a woman up to six weeks after labor. It also increases the risk of stroke during and after pregnancy.

Symptoms of Preeclampsia

Symptoms of preeclampsia are highly variable. It is possible to have preeclampsia and not be aware that anything’s wrong. Your doctor will check your blood pressure, look for swelling in your hands and face, and check for sudden weight gain. Blood and urine tests will look for protein in the urine, elevated liver enzymes and a platelet count that’s too low.

Hypertension doesn’t usually cause symptoms, which underscores the importance of prenatal doctor’s visits. If you find out that you have developed high blood pressure during pregnancy, though, this should be your first tip-off that preeclampsia may develop.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, contact your gynecologist right away:

  • Severe headache;
  • Vision changes (temporary blindness, seeing spots or flashing lights);
  • Pain on the right side of the abdomen, below the ribs (or in the right shoulder);
  • Decreased urination;
  • Nausea or vomiting; and
  • Rapid weight gain, especially in the last weeks of pregnancy;

Swelling of hands and face often occurs along with preeclampsia, but it also occurs in normal pregnancies.

Treatment for Preeclampsia

Protein in the mother’s urine is a clear sign of preeclampsia, so doctors advise that you have your urine be checked for protein at every prenatal visit. The only actual cure for preeclampsia is delivering the baby, but, unless you are close enough to your due date (generally 37 weeks or more), an obstetrician will probably try to manage your preeclampsia with bed rest and medications until the baby is far enough along to be delivered safely.

If the condition is severe enough, a woman will probably be admitted to the hospital to be monitored closely, and may be given medications (such as magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures).

Bed rest at home, along with plenty of water and a low-salt diet, may be adequate to manage less-severe cases of preeclampsia — although you will still need frequent visits to your doctor to check blood pressure and your vital signs, and to monitor your baby’s health.

Next Steps

  • Since women with pre-existing conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension are at an increased risk of developing preeclampsia, maintaining a healthy weight before — and during — pregnancy helps prevent it. Also, talk to your doctor about low-dose aspirin: Recent research has shown that, for women with moderate to high risk of preeclampsia, daily low-dose aspirin, started late in the first trimester, may also reduce the risk of preeclampsia.  
  • Severe preeclampsia is a serious health problem for both mother and child. Don’t skip prenatal doctor’s visits and be in touch with your doctor throughout your pregnancy. If you experience any signs of respiratory problems or severe edema (water retention), seek medical attention immediately. Indications of pulmonary edema should be treated as an emergency.

For Caregivers

The month of May is designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “National Preeclampsia Awareness Month.” To build responsiveness to this life-threatening disorder, the National Institutes of Health launched an education campaign using the theme: Take the Preeclampsia Pledge: Know the Symptoms, Spread the Word.” You can join thousands of families in 38 cities to support and raise funds for preeclampsia research.

Spouses, friends and family of women who may be at risk of preeclampsia can help them with exercising and maintaining healthy diets, and can provide company or distractions if bed rest is required.

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