Toxemia; Pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH); Gestational hypertension; High blood pressure - preeclampsia
Preeclampsia is when a pregnant woman develops high blood pressure and protein in the urine after the 20th week of pregnancy.
The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown. It occurs in about 3% to 7% of all pregnancies.
Risk factors include:
- First pregnancy
- Past history of preeclampsia
- Multiple pregnancy (twins or more)
- Family history of preeclampsia
- Being older than age 35
- History of diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease
Often, women who have preeclampsia do not feel sick.
Symptoms of preeclampsia can include:
- Swelling of the hands and face or eyes (edema)
- Sudden weight gain over 1 to 2 days or more than 2 pounds (0.9 kg) a week
Note: Some swelling of the feet and ankles is considered normal during pregnancy.
Symptoms of severe preeclampsia include:
- Headache that does not go away
- Trouble breathing
- Belly pain on the right side, below the ribs. Pain may also be felt in the right shoulder, and can be confused with heartburn, gallbladder pain, a stomach virus, or kicking by the baby
- Decreased urine output, not urinating very often
- Nausea and vomiting (a worrisome sign)
- Vision changes, including temporary blindness, seeing flashing lights or spots, sensitivity to light, and blurry vision
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will do a physical exam. This may show:
- High blood pressure, often higher than 140/90 mm/Hg
- Swelling in the hands and face
- Weight gain
Blood and urine tests will be done. This may show:
- Protein in the urine (proteinuria)
- Higher-than-normal liver enzymes
- Platelet count that is low
Tests will also be done to:
- See how well your blood clots
- Monitor the baby's health
The results of a pregnancy ultrasound, non-stress test, and other tests will help your provider decide whether your baby needs to be delivered right away.
Women who had low blood pressure at the start of their pregnancy, followed by a significant rise in blood pressure need to be watched closely for other signs of preeclampsia.
The only way to cure preeclampsia is to deliver the baby.
Most often, at 37 weeks, your baby is developed enough to be healthy outside of the womb
As a result, your provider may want your baby to be delivered so the preeclampsia does not get worse. You may get medicines to help trigger labor, or you may need a C-section.
If your baby is not fully developed and you have mild preeclampsia, the disease can often be managed at home until your baby has matured. The provider will recommend:
- Bed rest, and lying on your left side most or all of the time
- Drinking plenty of water
- Eating less salt
- Frequent doctor visits to make sure you and your baby are doing well
- Medicines to lower your blood pressure (sometimes)
Sometimes, a pregnant woman with preeclampsia is admitted to the hospital. This allows the health care team to watch the baby and mother more closely.
Treatment in the hospital may include:
- Close monitoring of the mother and baby
- Medicines to control blood pressure and prevent seizures and other complications
- Steroid injections for pregnancies under 34 weeks gestation to help speed up the development of the baby's lungs
You and your provider will continue to discuss the safest time to deliver your baby, considering:
- How close you are to your due date
- The severity of the preeclampsia: preeclampsia has many severe complications that can harm the mother
- How well the baby is doing in the womb
The baby must be delivered if there are signs of severe preeclampsia. These include:
- Tests that show your baby is not growing well or is not getting enough blood and oxygen
- The bottom number of your blood pressure is over 110 mmHg or is greater than 100 mmHg consistently over a 24-hour period
- Abnormal liver function test results
- Severe headaches
- Pain in the belly area (abdomen)
- Seizures or changes in mental function (eclampsia)
- Fluid buildup in the mother's lungs
- HELLP syndrome (rare)
- Low platelet count or bleeding
- Low urine output, a lot of protein in the urine, and other signs that your kidneys are not working properly
Sign and symptoms of preeclampsia most often go away within 6 weeks after delivery. However, the high blood pressure sometimes gets worse the first few days after delivery.
If you have had preeclampsia, you are more likely to develop it again during another pregnancy. In most cases, it is not as severe as the first time.
If you have high blood pressure during more than one pregnancy, you are more likely to have high blood pressure when you get older.
Rare but severe immediate complications for the mother can include:
- Bleeding problems
- Seizure (eclampsia)
- Fetal growth retardation
- Premature separation of the placenta from the uterus before the baby is born
- Rupture of the liver
- Death (rarely)
Having a history of preeclampsia makes a woman a higher risk for future problems such as:
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have symptoms of preeclampsia during your pregnancy.
There is no known way to prevent preeclampsia. It is important for all pregnant women to start prenatal care early and continue it through the pregnancy.
Markham KB, Funai EF. Pregnancy-related hypertension. In: Creasy R. ed. Creasy and Resnik's Maternal-Fetal Medicine: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 48.
Rosene-Montella K. Common medical problems in pregnancy. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 239.
Sibai BM. Preeclampsia and hypertensive disorders. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, et al, eds. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2017:chap 31.