What is preeclampsia and what are the symptoms? It’s one of the most searched terms on the internet — and with good reason.
Also known as toxemia, preeclampsia has been treated the same way for decades: deliver the baby. Yet, it is still responsible for 18 percent of maternal deaths in the United States. And, there’s now evidence that preeclampsia leads to lasting consequences for some women, ranging from postpartum depression (PPD) to a higher risk of kidney and cardiovascular problems in later life.
What Is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is essentially pregnancy-induced hypertension, or high blood pressure. If left untreated, the BP can hit stroke levels, causing organ shutdown of kidneys and causing seizures. If it hits that point, it’s no longer preeclampsia. It’s called eclampsia instead.
Eclampsia leads to death, often rapidly. Remember Sybil from Downton Abbey? She died in a heartbreaking episode (Spoiler alert!) of eclampsia after she delivered her baby.
The symptoms for preeclampsia usually start in the second or third trimester. While the clincher is super high BP, some of the other symptoms are more subtle. They might include things that usually happen in a pregnancy: upper abdominal pain, weight gain, water retention, and headaches. All of these things should be mentioned to an OB, who will probably dipstick your urine and check for protein spillage, indicating kidney involvement.
Other big red flags: blurred vision, decreased urine output, and nausea. If you have any of these things, hustle to a doctor, stat.
Once diagnosed, some women are put on bedrest to drag out the time until the delivery is safer; more time in utero means better lung development and better chance of surviving a premature delivery. Some, however, are induced immediately or have an emergency c-section.
The only true treatment for preeclampsia is to get the baby delivered. Usually that results in an immediate lowering of the life threatening BP levels, although not always.
What Are the Risk Factors?
The typically published risk factors which most pregnant women hear about are fairly specific.
The Preeclampsia Foundation states that women are considered to be at high-risk for preeclampsia if one or more of the following risk factors are present:
- History of preeclampsia, especially if accompanied by a poor outcome
- Multifetal gestation (pregnant with more than one baby)
- Chronic hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2)
- Kidney disease
- Autoimmune disease
University of Chicago Medicine adds on to this list with:
- Younger than 18 or older than 40
- African American race
- First pregnancy or previous history of preeclampsia
- Family history of preeclampsia
- Sickle cell disease
- In-vitro fertilization