Preeclampsia in Pregnancy: Causes, Signs and Symptoms

Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.
 

Pre-eclampsia is the most common type of hypertensive disorder that can affect pregnant mothers. According to the Right Diagnosis, 5% to 8% of pregnancy cases in the United States are preeclampsia. This article provides* an overview on the fundamental facts about preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia: What Is It?

Preeclampsia – formerly known as toxemia – is a serious complication of pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure and presence of protein in the urine. Preeclampsia occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy particularly during the third trimester. It can actually develop until the postpartum period, up to 6 weeks. Preeclampsia may happen to first time mothers and subsequent pregnancies. In the United States, up to 6% of women develop preeclampsia in the first pregnancy, and 1 in 100 women suffer seizures (or eclampsia) as a complication.

Preeclampsia can be mild or severe:

Types of Preeclampsia Characteristics
Mild Preeclampsia Blood pressure of 140/90 or more
(-) evidence of organ damage

Severe Preeclampsia Blood pressure of 160/110 or more
Presence of (any) of the following:
Pulmonary edema
Proteinuria (appearance of protein molecules in the urine)
Oliguria (decreased* urine flow)
Liver damage

Note: Eclampsia is a state when preeclampsia is accompanied by seizure episodes

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia?

The following are the clinical manifestations of preeclampsia:

  • Hypertension (hallmark sign)
  • readings should be higher than 140/90 taken on at least 2 measurements minimum of 6 hours interval
  • Proteinuria
  • appearance of protein molecules in the urine as a result of kidney damage
  • Blurring of vision, occasional blindness
  • Headache
  • Swelling
  • Weight gain
  • more than 2 pounds a week

Physiological changes brought by preeclampsia not only affect mothers but also the baby resulting in diminished* blood flow to the placenta. Lack of oxygen supply to the placenta brings about sluggish movement of the fetus.

What are the Risk Factors and Causes Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia has no identifiable cause but it is believed that hypertensive conditions in pregnant women are brought by endothelial cell dysfunction. Endothelial cells are situated in the linings of the blood vessels which have major functions in vascular biology.

The following are factors that contribute to or predispose a pregnant woman to preeclampsia:

  • African American women
  • Multiple pregnancies
  • With family history of preeclampsia
  • Women more than 35 years old
  • Wide gap of pregnancy – more than 10 years since the last pregnancy
  • History of hypertension
  • Women with excessive weight
  • With history of diabetes mellitus
  • With history of kidney disorder or connective tissue disease
  • With existing health problem related to placenta; for example, hydatidiform mole

How to Diagnose Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is an example of idiopathic disease which means the real cause of the problem is not identified. And so, diagnostic procedures and treatment modalities for preeclampsia are not precise and conclusive. Health experts advise pregnant mothers with high blood measure readings and experience hypertensive symptoms such as severe headache and confusion should immediately see a doctor for proper assessment and immediate medical intervention.

Besides regular blood pressure taking, additional tests may be performed to determine preeclampsia. These tests are as follows:

  • Blood tests (platelet count, kidney function, liver tests)
  • 24-hour urine collection
  • Fetal monitoring (nonstress test, ultrasound)

How Does Preeclampsia Affect the Health of the Mother and the Baby?

Untreated preeclampsia can have negative implications both to the mother and the baby.

Effects to the Mother Effects to the Baby
Reduced* Maternal Blood Volume Growth retardation
Premature Birth Hypoxia
Fetal damage
Fetal death (rare).
Poor nutrition

Furthermore, study shows that fetus born from mothers with preeclampsia have higher tendency of developing hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease in the later life.

What are the Treatments for Preeclampsia?

There is no best cure* for preeclampsia with exception of the delivery of the baby. Treatments are also variable according to the type of preeclampsia and the stage of pregnancy.

In the majority of cases, mothers who are close to their due dates will be given certain medications to induce labor. Fetus with compromised health as evidenced by decreased* heart rate is delivered via cesarean section. However, if the baby is still premature yet the disease becomes severe, betamethasone is given to facilitate maturation of lungs of the baby prior to giving birth. If it is too early for delivery, the patient is admitted to the hospital for close observation and complete bed rest. Mild preeclampsia needs no immediate intervention. The mother is only advised for complete bed rest and limit home activities. Aspirins and calcium supplements may be given to mothers with preeclampsia in regulated doses.

What are the Complications of Preeclampsia?

When preeclampsia is not treated immediately, it may result in the following conditions:

  • Eclampsia, or convulsions in pregnancy
  • HELLP Syndrome (Hemolysis Elevated Liver Low Platelet) – A rare blood clotting, liver disorder in pregnant mothers often takes place after the delivery of the baby
  • Stroke – Diminished* oxygen supply to the brain as a result of chronic hypertension
  • Pulmonary Edema – Characterized by fluid accumulation in the lungs
  • Kidney Failure – The state where the kidneys are not able to filter properly bodily toxins
  • Liver failure or disruption of the normal functioning of the liver
  • Blood clothing disorder wherein the body is unable to produce* clothing factors necessary to halt bleeding

Complications of preeclampsia in baby are neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (where lungs are not fully developed) and still born (when the baby dies in the womb).

All in All

Preeclampsia is a serious health condition affecting pregnant women. It does not only cause health problems to pregnant mothers but more essentially, baby’s health is compromised. Because the exact cause of preeclampsia is not known, there is no accurate way to treat* and prevent toxemia in pregnancy.

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Author

Expert Author : Peony C Echavez (Consumer Health Digest)

Peony is a registered nurse, and former Director of Nursing services for a large nursing facility. She has written web content for a large health education website, and currently creates content for a number of health practisioners.

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