What is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that affects 3% to 8% of pregnancies, often after 37 weeks gestation. It is a potentially serious complication of pregnancy, one that requires constant monitoring by your doctor, and possibly the early delivery of your baby. Preeclampsia typically is characterized by high blood pressure, protein in the urine and swelling. Other symptoms such as headaches and changes in vision also may signal the development of preeclampsia.

A doctor will typically diagnose preeclampsia if a woman meets these three criteria:

  • After 20 weeks gestation
  • High blood pressure
  • Presence of protein in urine

Preeclampsia can occur within the first couple of days after delivery, requiring the doctor to closely monitor the new mother. During pregnancy, the severity of symptoms and how quickly preeclampsia comes on can vary widely from case to case. Since preeclampsia is such a serious complication of pregnancy, your doctor will monitor your blood pressure, weight and test for protein in your urine at every visit. In conjunction with these other symptoms, swelling is also monitored, as severe edema may be a symptom of preeclampsia.

With preeclampsia, the blood vessels constrict, which causes high blood pressure, resulting in less blood flow to the baby, and important organs. It can affect the baby's growth and amount of amniotic fluid, and can even be life threatening for the mother if it progresses to eclampsia. Eclampsia occurs when the mother suffers seizures, often unexpectedly. Typically, eclampsia is preceded by severe headaches and changes in vision.

Doctors don't know exactly what causes preeclampsia, or who will develop the condition, but it may be related to how the placenta attaches to the uterine wall. The blood supply to the placenta may also be a factor, as well as diabetes, chronic hypertension (high blood pressure), heredity, and immune system. If you've had preeclampsia with one or more previous pregnancies, then you have as much as a 40% increased risk of developing it in subsequent pregnancies. If you have a clotting disorder, or autoimmune diseases, are obese, or are carrying multiple fetuses, you may also be at higher risk. Family history also affects your chances of developing preeclampsia — if one of your close female relatives had preeclampsia, you are at higher risk as well.

If you develop preeclampsia, your treatment will be determined by how severe your case is, and how developed your baby is. If you develop it prior to 34 weeks, and it is not a serious case, your doctor will monitor you closely and prescribe bed rest in an attempt to get you through a few more weeks so your baby's lungs will be developed enough to survive outside the womb. You may receive medication for your baby's lungs to speed up development. If you are close enough to your due date, and your baby's lungs are developed enough, your doctor will most likely want to deliver the baby as soon as possible. For more serious cases of preeclampsia and eclampsia, Imagnesium sulfate will be administered to help avoid seizures.

There are no medically proven ways to avoid the development of preeclampsia in your pregnancy; however, some studies have suggested that supplements of calcium, and vitamins C and E may have some protective effect. Because preeclampsia is such a potentially severe complication of pregnancy, be sure to get good prenatal care and report any symptoms to your doctor.

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