You might have heard grown-ups at different times complaining about their blood pressure – and it is a common problem for many people here in the United States. However, blood pressure issues are even more of a problem if a woman starts to get this problem while she is pregnant. Read on to find out more.

What is Pre-eclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that can happen to moms-to-be in the second half of their pregnancy (after week 20).  The main problem with pre-eclampsia is high blood pressure, but this can cause a lot of other health problems and can be dangerous for both mother and baby.

How Do You Know if A Woman has Pre-eclampsia?

Fortunately, it is not usually difficult to diagnose pre-eclampsia.  Women who have this condition can have any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Blood pressure readings consistently over 140/90
  • Protein in the urine or other signs of kidney trouble, such as a decrease in urination
  • Swelling in the face and hands
  • Fluid in the lungs causing shortness of breath (this is called pulmonary edema)
  • Fewer platelets in the blood (platelets are the part of the blood that helps you stop bleeding when you get cut)
  • Problems with the way the liver works
  • Vision problems
  • Pain in the upper part of the stomach; sometimes this can come with nausea and vomiting

When Should You Go to ER?

Pre-eclampsia can quickly become a life-threatening condition for mom and baby if it is left untreated.  A woman should go to the ER or call 911 if she has any of the following symptoms:

  • Blurred vision
  • Severe pain in the stomach
  • Severe headaches
  • Shortness of breath that won’t go away

What Causes Pre-eclampsia?

Although doctors have known about pre-eclampsia for a long time now, they don’t exactly know why it happens — or why some women get it and others do not. Many doctors think that when a woman’s body starts to form new blood vessels that will take blood to the uterus to give the baby oxygen and nutrients, that something goes wrong with those veins and leads them to be narrower than they should be. This might be a genetic problem (pre-eclampsia can run in the families), though some women get this condition when there is no family history at all.

Who is at Risk for Pre-eclampsia?

While any woman who is pregnant could possibly get pre-eclampsia, some women are more at risk.  Risk factors for this include:

  • Having pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Having a family history of preeclampsia
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Carrying at least two babies at a time (twins, triplets, etc.)
  • Being over the age of 40
  • Having babies earlier than two years apart
  • Having babies longer than ten years apart
  • Having other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or kidney disease

Why is Pre-Eclampsia a Problem?

Doctors worry about pre-eclampsia because it can cause problems for mom and baby both. Some of these problems include:

  • Low blood flow to the baby, which can cause slower growth and a low birth weight
  • An early delivery of the baby
  • Placental abruption. This is when the sac that the baby is inside become detached from the wall of the uterus. This can cause heavy bleeding and be life-threatening for mom and baby both.
  • Seizures
  • An increased risk that the mother will get heart disease in the future

How do You Know if a Woman Has Pre-eclampsia?

If a woman is past her 20th week of pregnancy and has at least one of the following symptoms, she is will be diagnosed with preeclampsia:

  • At least two blood pressure readings of 140/90
  • Poor liver function
  • Fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
  • Severe or persistent headaches
  • Sudden vision problems
  • Signs of kidney trouble like protein in the urine

If a doctor suspects that a woman has preeclampsia, he or she will take blood samples to test how well the liver is doing and to measure the number of platelets a woman has in her blood. They will also take urine samples for tests and do an ultrasound and other tests to make sure that the baby is okay.

How Do You Treat Pre-Eclampsia?

The only way to cure preeclampsia is to deliver the baby.  However, if a woman develops this condition earlier in the pregnancy, this is usually not possible, in which case other treatments might be tried, including:

  • Use of some medications to lower the blood pressure
  • Use of steroids to help boost the number of platelets and make it easier for the liver to do its jobs; this will also help a baby’s lungs develop and be ready for birth
  • Use of medications called anticonvulsants that will help prevent seizures
  • Bed rest (though not all doctors recommend this)

Sometimes, a doctor will put a woman with severe pre-eclampsia in the hospital so that professionals can take care of her around the clock in case anything happens.  Some women will have to stay in the hospital until the birth of the baby.

Pre-eclampsia can be a difficult condition to treat. However, with modern medical practices, doctors are now able to minimize the risk to mom and baby as much as possible and care well for babies who have to be delivered before their due date in a way that was not possible in the past.