Preeclampsia: What Pregnant Women Need to Know

Preeclampsia is a condition in which a woman develops high blood pressure during the second half of pregnancy. It can be life-threatening for mother and baby and may necessitate early delivery.

Preeclampsia: Diagnosis and treatment

We diagnose preeclampsia when a woman with previously normal blood pressure develops high blood pressure. She also begins to pass protein in her urine. This happens in the second half of pregnancy.

Preeclampsia symptoms include headaches, changes in vision, pain in the upper abdomen, and a sudden increase in swelling, particularly in the hands and face.

Many signs, like high blood pressure, are silent. Awareness of these symptoms is important for all pregnant women. Your doctor or midwife will check your blood pressure and ask about these symptoms at prenatal visits and may collect a urine sample to screen for protein in the urine.

We recommend additional blood tests when we suspect preeclampsia. You may need to be admitted to the hospital to monitor your blood pressure and your baby’s wellbeing. Medications may be used to treat your blood pressures and prevent complications. Delivery of the baby is the only way to cure preeclampsia once it has been diagnosed. Sometimes delivery needs to occur early to protect the mother and baby.

What causes preeclampsia to develop?

We don’t know why it develops. Studies show that the placenta does not attach to the wall of the uterus as deeply early in pregnancy in women who develop it. Certain conditions pre-dispose women to preeclampsia: diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, obesity, and twin or triplet pregnancies.

Preeclampsia is also more common in a woman’s first pregnancy. If it happens in one pregnancy, there is an increased chance that it may happen again in future pregnancies.

Is there any way to prevent preeclampsia?

We now recommend that women who are at high risk take a low dose of aspirin during pregnancy. This treatment reduces the likelihood that preeclampsia develops. Maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular exercise prior to pregnancy are other important ways to reduce your risk. Proper prenatal care is essential to monitor for signs of preeclampsia to ensure a healthy mom and baby.

We are fortunate to have several doctors and researchers who study preeclampsia here at the University of Vermont. Learn more about Obstetrics and Midwifery at the UVM Medical Center.

Erin Morris, MD, is a Maternal Fetal Medicine specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Robert Larner, MD College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.


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