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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Things You Can Do To Prevent Premature Birth

In the U.S., 1 in 10 births is premature. Full-term pregnancies last from 39 to 40 weeks. “Preterm labor” is when labor begins earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy, and can lead to premature birth. A baby needs 40 weeks in the womb in order to fully develop. Until 39 weeks, the brain, lungs, ears, eyes, and liver are still growing. So, when a baby is born earlier than 37 weeks, there can be serious health concerns. Sleep apnea, heart problems, breathing problems, and mental retardation, to name a few, can occur at birth, and continue later in life. In order to shed light on how often premature birth occurs, why it does, and how to prevent it, November was named Prematurity

Woman's pregnant belly being held with both hands.
Being pregnant with twins is a risk for premature birth.

Awareness Month. 

What Causes Preterm Birth

Premature birth can be caused by a number of different factors. Your risk factors are greater if you:

  • Already had a premature baby
  • Were a premature baby yourself
  • Are pregnant with twins
  • Are overweight or underweight
  • Have uterus or cervix issues/abnormalities
  • Have gum infections- Pregnant women are more susceptible to periodontal disease which gets into the bloodstream and to the fetus.
  • Smoke
  • Have uterine or vaginal infections such as bacterial vaginosis, STI’s, and UTI’s
  • Get pregnant too soon after having a baby
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are diabetic
  • Have stress caused by a traumatic experience
  • Are younger than 17 or older than 35. Women between these ages are considered to have a “high-risk” pregnancy. 

How To Prevent Premature Birth

Even though there are risk factors that cannot be changed, there are ways that you can reduce your risk of early labor. You can take control by:

  • Managing your weight– It is important to get to a healthy weight before pregnancy and gain a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy. Obese women are more likely to have preterm pregnancies. Talk to your doctor about how much weight is normal to gain, and where you should be weight-wise throughout your pregnancy. 
  • Having a Healthy Diet- When you are pregnant, it is extremely important to get all of your daily nutrients within your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce premature birth, which can be found in foods such as cooked salmon, eggs, and walnuts. Add foods that are high in vitamin C, such as broccoli, oranges, and Brussels sprouts, because vitamin C has also been shown to reduce premature birth risks. 
  • Cigarettes piled on top of each other with a red no sign over them.
    Smoking increases the chances of having premture labor.

    Staying Hydrated– Drink water and stay hydrated. Dehydration can lead to premature contractions. 

  • Getting Checked– Make sure any health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and other issues are under control. 
  • Staying Active– Being active throughout your pregnancy will reduce your risk of conditions like preeclampsia and diabetes. 
  • Quitting Smoking– If it is hard to quit cold turkey, then nicotine replacement therapy can help. Although they aren’t the best option, it is better than smoking. 
  • Taking Prenatal Vitamins– Prenatal supplements will improve your odds of carrying full term. The folic acid in prenatals lower the risk of the placenta separating from the uterine wall and preeclampsia. 
  • Staying On Top Of Dental Care– Visit your dentist and make sure you are taking the proper measures to avoid gum disease. Brush and floss twice every day and see your dentist if you have any issues. 


Experiencing contractions or period-like cramps could be signs of premature labor. Change in vaginal discharge and fluid leaking from your vagina, similar to your water breaking, are also warning signs. If you experience any of these before the 37 weeks, then go to the hospital immediately. You will be hooked up to a fetal monitor to make sure the baby is not in distress, and an ultrasound will be given. If the tests show it is not time to give birth, then you will go 

Caucasian woman with a light blur robe ontouching a baby in a NICU basket
Babies born before 34 weeks will need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for anywhere from days to months.

home and possibly be on bed rest. 

Babies born before 34 weeks will need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for anywhere from days to months. If born between 34-37 weeks, there might be health conditions such as cerebral palsy or learning difficulties, but not necessarily. 

In order to prevent premature birth, you have to stay on top of any health conditions you have, eat a healthy diet, and maintain a healthy weight throughout pregnancy. Get checked often, and make sure to stay on track for both you and your baby’s health. If at any point you have fluid leaking or contractions before 40 weeks, go to the hospital.