What Preeclampsia Means For Your Pregnancy

High blood pressure complicates almost 10% of all pregnancies, and the incidence of this condition is even higher in women who have never given birth or are carrying multiple fetuses. This condition is dangerous during pregnancy because it can lead to preeclampsia, which is a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. Preeclampsia can affect both the mother and baby – and when it comes to the baby’s health, preeclampsia can have long-lasting effects.

What Is Preeclampsia?

pregnant woman getting blood pressure checked
Preeclampsia is when a pregnant woman’s blood pressure is high after the 20th week of pregnancy and can be dangerous.

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related hypertensive disorder that is marked by the elevation of the mother’s blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy. If it is not monitored or treated, it can progress to severe preeclampsia quickly. Most women who deal with preeclampsia will deliver healthy babies and fully recover, but others will experience complications. 

Preeclampsia Risk Factors

The cause of preeclampsia is unknown, but research suggests that women who are obese or have diabetes and chronic hypertension are more likely to develop it. It can happen to any woman during pregnancy, occurring in 5-8% of all pregnancies in women with no known risk factors. Incidences of it are on the rise: the rate of preeclampsia has increased 25% in the last two decades.

The most common risk factors include:

  • Previous history of preeclampsia
  • Multiple fetuses
  • History of chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, or organ transplant
  • Never having been pregnant before
  • Obesity, particularly with a BMI of 30 or greater
  • Being over 35 or under 20 years of age
  • Family history of preeclampsia
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
  • Lupus or other autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis, and multiple sclerosis
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Obstructive sleep apnea

How Preeclampsia Affects the Mother

Preeclampsia can develop at any time during pregnancy, delivery, or up to six weeks postpartum, though it most frequently occurs in the final trimester of pregnancy. It usually resolves within 48 hours of delivery. Symptoms include:

illustration of a woman holding her head

  • Persistent nausea
  • Severe headaches
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vision loss or blurred vision. 

Preeclampsia can have long-term effects, especially if it begins early in pregnancy, including damage to vital organs, such as the kidneys, livers, and brain. It can even cause seizures and stroke. 

How Preeclampsia Affects the Baby

Preeclampsia is also risky for the fetus and can have long-lasting effects after birth. It depends on how severe the condition is, and how long the mother has had it. Some possible issues include:

  • Lack of oxygen and nutrients that can impair fetal growth
  • Premature birth– The baby’s growth can be restricted in the womb, causing early delivery
  • Stillbirth if placental abruption (separation of the placenta from the uterine wall) leads to heavy bleeding in the mother
  • Infant death- In the U.S., approximately 10,500 babies, and an estimated half-million worldwide, die from preeclampsia each year. If the baby is not growing how they should be, or scores poorly on a stress test, they might not survive in the womb. 
  • Ongoing life challenges- This condition can lead to learning disorders, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, blindness, and deafness.
blood pressure machine with high numbers and medicine next to it
There is no cure for preeclampsia, but you will have to be monitored closely throughout the pregnancy.

There is no cure for preeclampsia. The mother and baby will need to be carefully monitored throughout the pregnancy if it is diagnosed. If you develop preeclampsia, your OB/GYN will monitor your blood pressure and assess your lab tests to make sure your organs are functioning properly, and that the baby is growing in the womb as they should be. You will be prescribed antihypertensive drugs if your blood pressure rises to dangerously high levels of 160/110 or higher.

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