Diagnosed With Preeclampsia: What Now?

Getting a diagnosis of preeclampsia can be scary for a mom-to-be. Find out what you need to know if it happens to you.

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No mama-to-be wants to find out she has a potentially dangerous pregnancy condition -- so it can come as an unpleasant shock if your doctor diagnoses you with preeclampsia.

The condition, which is defined as a serious and sometimes fatal disorder of pregnancy classified by higher-than-normal blood pressure, swelling, and inflammation in the body, and in some cases, protein in the urine, can indeed be a frightening prospect to face as you near your due date. And while you may be somewhat familiar with the term preeclampsia, thanks to some recent high-profile celebrities who had the pregnancy disorder, you probably don't know what happens after the diagnosis. Here's what to expect if you're expecting and you develop preeclampsia:

Strict monitoring. Not only will your blood pressure be carefully monitored to ensure that it's not going too high, but you'll likely have more rigorous testing of your urine and blood done, too. Doctors will check your urine for rising protein levels (preeclampsia causes protein from your cells to spill over into your urine) and perform lab work to give them a more accurate picture of how preeclampsia is affecting your kidneys, liver, and other organs. Your baby will also be carefully monitored, with non-stress testing (NSTs) and more frequent ultrasounds to measure amniotic fluid levels and markers for fetal well-being, like heart rate and breathing.

Weird symptoms. Preeclampsia can cause a host of symptoms during pregnancy. In addition to causing extreme swelling, preeclampsia can cause vision changes (you might see "floaters" or flashes of light), abdominal pain and tenderness, severe headaches, general malaise, and nausea and vomiting. (The symptoms of preeclampsia point to damage going on below the surface, and are important to get checked out.)

Medications. Although the only real "cure" for preeclampsia is delivering your baby, the disorder may be managed with antihyptertensive medications to lower your blood pressure. In many cases, you'll need to continue taking these after delivery as well, as the high blood pressure caused by the preeclampsia can last up to a year postbirth. Other preventive measures include a daily dose of baby aspirin, which studies have shown may help prevent preeclampsia from worsening. Once you're in labor, your doctor may also give you magnesium sulfate, a smooth muscle relaxant that's infused through an IV, as a preventive measure to ward off seizures. And if you're delivering before 37 weeks, doctors may prescribe special steroids for your baby to help with respiratory function, as his lungs may not be fully developed.

Possible hospitalization and induction. Although the majority of preeclampsia cases occur after 37 weeks of pregnancy, the disorder can happen as early as after 20 weeks, says Lisa Valle, D.O., an ob-gyn hospitalist at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. If your preeclampsia becomes severe enough, you may need to be hospitalized so doctors can monitor your condition more carefully. All preeclampsia cases are treated on an individual basis, but if the condition occurs early enough in your pregnancy and is severe enough to endanger your life, your healthcare team will consider if an induction is in both your and your baby's best interest. "The delivery plan has to be strategized," says Abdulla Al-Khan, M.D., director of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine & Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. If you're at (or past) the 37-week point, immediate delivery is preferred, Dr. Al-Khan says. If you're under 34 weeks (and especially under 32 weeks without severe features) you may be "admitted, monitored, and watched carefully on a daily basis to see if we can bide time to avoid premature labor," he says.

Risks down the road. Unfortunately, once you've had preeclampsia with one pregnancy, you're at an increased risk of developing the condition again. And preeclampsia can also cause complications after birth, including continued elevated high blood pressure for several weeks, according to Dr. Valle. In addition, you could be at an increased risk for other heart complications as you age, Dr. Al-Khan says. So follow-up care (and a continuous relationship with a health-care provider who knows your history) is more important than ever.

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