Signs of Preeclampsia Every Pregnant Woman Should Know

Learn the most common preeclampsia symptoms, including high blood pressure and severe swelling during pregnancy.

pregnant woman getting blood pressure taken
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Preeclampsia (also called toxemia) is a serious disorder that generally develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It's marked by high blood pressure and high levels of protein in the urine.

"In preeclampsia, a lot of small blood vessels clamp down in the liver, the kidneys, the brain, and other organs," says Virginia R. Lupo, M.D., chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. "Women will have symptoms in the area where the vessels are clamping down." Preeclampsia can also cause the larger blood vessels to constrict, which results in high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia complicates 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. The hypertensive disorder usually develops in the second half of pregnancy and can be life-threatening if left untreated. Despite the seriousness of the condition, there's good reason to expect a positive outcome if you have it.

"Most women who develop preeclampsia will deliver a healthy baby and fully recover," according to the foundation. But prompt medical attention is a must. Consult this guide to learn more about the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia, as well as how it's treated.

Preeclampsia Symptoms

  • Sudden rapid weight gain, related to water retention (more than two pounds in a week)
  • Blood pressure rises to 140/90 or more
  • Excessive swelling (edema) of the hands and face
  • Swelling in the ankles that does not go down after 12 hours of rest
  • Severe headaches
  • Protein in the urine (determined by your doctor)

Other symptoms that warrant an immediate call to your doctor include:

  • Severe headache
  • Visual disturbances such as flashing lights or blurred vision
  • Pain in the upper right area of your abdomen and/or shoulder pain
  • Pain or a burning sensation behind your sternum
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion or anxiety
  • Shortness of breath

Treating Signs of Preeclampsia

All prenatal healthcare providers offer regular blood-pressure and urine checks because early diagnosis and diligent monitoring are essential for women with preeclampsia. If you have a milder case, you may be treated at home with bed rest, but you'll probably need to make frequent visits to your healthcare provider's office for tests such as urinalysis, ultrasound, and electronic monitoring of the fetal heartbeat.

You may also be asked to monitor your blood pressure at home. Many women who develop preeclampsia will need to be hospitalized so that the health of both mother and baby can be closely monitored.

If the well-being of either is at risk, the practitioner may recommend early delivery by cesearean or induction. Medication may be prescribed to prevent seizures, which are a threat to women with preeclampsia. In some cases, delivery must take place before the fetus is at term, which can have serious consequences for the baby's health. But in many instances, both mother and baby come through the experience well, with no lasting damage to their health.

When Do Preeclampsia Symptoms Go Away?

"Most cases of preeclampsia are fully resolved within 24 hours of delivery," says John Repke, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. Less commonly, it can take up to three weeks for all of your symptoms to subside.

Generally, the prognosis for women who have preeclampsia "is excellent," Dr. Repke says, but some research indicates that they may be at a higher risk for developing high blood pressure or heart disease later in life. Annual checkups are especially important if you've had preeclampsia.

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