What is preeclampsia? Symptoms, causes + facts every pregnant mama needs to know

Watch for headaches, changes in your vision and lightheadedness.

What is preeclampsia? Symptoms, causes + facts every pregnant mama needs to know

If you're reading this article, there is a very good chance you've just come home from a doctor or midwife appointment where you heard the words, “You have preeclampsia." You might be freaking out a little (or a lot), and that's totally okay. You are allowed to be upset that your pregnancy has taken this unexpected and not very fun turn.

But please hear me, mama—you've got this.

Before we dive into what preeclampsia is all about, I want to tell you that many, many women have preeclampsia and have very healthy births and babies. This is a bump in the road for sure, but chances are one day this will just be a part of the story you tell about the making of your child.

So, what is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that only occurs in pregnancy, that happens in about five to eight percent of pregnancies. It usually develops after the 20 week mark, though it can rarely start sooner.

The hallmark of preeclampsia is elevated blood pressure AND protein in your urine. The protein is detected by a quick pee-in-a-cup test at your provider's office. If you do not have protein in your urine, then you probably have another condition called gestational hypertension, or pregnancy induced hypertension (PIH).

The normal blood pressure of a pregnant women should be around 120/80. The severity of preeclampsia depends on the specific blood pressure numbers.

  • Mild preeclampsia: The top number is 140 or greater and/or the bottom number is 90 or greater
  • Severe preeclampsia: The top number is 160 or greater and/or the bottom number is 100 or greater

Your provider will make this diagnoses.

What causes preeclampsia?

There have been many theories about what the real cause is—unfortunately we're still not exactly sure. However, scientists have discovered that there is a connection to proteins made and released into the woman's blood stream by her placenta (the organ that grows with you baby to provide his oxygen and nutrients).

Who is at risk for preeclampsia?

There are a few factors that increase the risk of developing this condition:

  • First pregnancies
  • Women with a family history of preeclampsia
  • Women who have had preeclampsia in the past
  • Multiple (twin, triplet, etc) pregnancies
  • Women with a BMI of over 30
  • Women under the age of 20 or over the age of 40
  • New sperm source (i.e. a new partner or sperm donor)

Will I know if I have preeclampsia?

In many cases, women find out they have preeclampsia at a regular prenatal appointment when their blood pressure is high. There are some symptoms to look out for, though:

  • Headaches
  • Changes in your vision
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea and vomitting
  • Sharp pain in your upper right belly
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Decreased urine

If you have any of these symptoms call your provider right away.

Why are we worried about preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia can cause damage to the woman's kidneys, liver and other organs. It can also affect the placenta, which would be harmful to the baby. In extremely rare cases, preeclampsia can evolve into eclampsia, where a woman experiences seizures.

Rarely, women can also develop HELLP syndrome:

  • H—hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells)
  • EL—elevated liver enzymes
  • LP—low platelets counts (platelets help blood to clot)

The symptoms of HELLP are similar to those of preeclampsia, and is diagnosed with a blood test.

How is preeclampsia treated?

The unfortunate thing is that the only real treatment for preeclampsia is giving birth. Some women may be giving medication to control their blood pressure, but this won't cure the condition.

Depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy, you may be given steroids to help your baby's lungs develop faster, so he's ready to be born sooner. You and your medical team may decide that it's safer for the baby to be born than to continue the pregnancy with preeclampsia. Your baby may need to spend some time in the NICU if he's born early.

In severe cases of preeclampsia, in order to prevent seizures women are given a medication through an IV called magnesium sulfate. leading up to and in labor, as well as for the first day after. Magnesium sulfate can make you feel pretty crummy, unfortunately—but your nurses and doctors will be keeping a very close eye on you to make sure you're safe.

One note—it is possible to have a totally normal pregnancy, and develop postpartum preeclampsia after you give birth. It usually occurs within 48 hours of giving birth, though it can happen up to 6 weeks after. If you experience any of the symptoms above, call your provider immediately.

I know this is rough, mama. You're scared and disappointed. But remember, most women with preeclampsia—and their sweet babies—are fine! Just attend all your prenatal appointments, ask tons of questions and try to remember that at the end of this, you get a baby.

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