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Preeclampsia: Know the Signs, Know the Risk

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common health risk for millions of people worldwide. But for pregnant women, hypertensive disorders during and immediately after pregnancy are one of the leading causes of serious illness and death.

More than 10 percent of all pregnancies worldwide experience complications due to hypertension — and one of the leading hypertensive disorders that afflict mothers and their babies is preeclampsia.

While women can experience high blood pressure at any time before and during their pregnancy, preeclampsia generally begins after the 20th week of pregnancy, usually in the third trimester (preeclampsia that occurs at 32 weeks or earlier is considered early-onset preeclampsia), though it can also occur in the postpartum period. A serious condition that threatens the lives of mothers and their unborn babies, the rate of preeclampsia nationwide has increased 25 percent in the past 20 years, making it one of the most significant health risks for new mothers and mothers-to-be.

Risk factors for preeclampsia include:

  • Being pregnant for the first time
  • Having had preeclampsia during a previous pregnancy
  • A family history of preeclampsia
  • A personal history of kidney disease, chronic hypertension or both
  • Age (40 and older or younger than 20)
  • Carrying more than one baby (twins or multiples)
  • Having an unhealthy weight (obesity)
  • Having undergone in vitro fertilization
  • Having preexisting medical conditions, including type 2 diabetes, lupus or thrombophilia

However, it’s important to remember that preeclampsia can occur to any woman during any pregnancy.

Preeclampsia can affect every organ in a woman’s body, causing organ systems to function improperly. Women with severe features of preeclampsia can experience such dangerous conditions as a reduced number of blood platelets and issues with kidney and liver function. It can also lead to eclampsia, a condition in which a woman begins experiencing seizures and even strokes.

Preeclampsia is such a significant condition that it can require delivering of your baby, even preterm.

Along with the effects on moms, preeclampsia can also affect the unborn child and is associated with:

  • Fetal growth restriction, caused by a restricted flow of nutrients to the baby through the placenta, increasing the risk of growth problems.
  • Placental abruption, in which the placenta prematurely detaches from the wall of the uterus — a medical emergency requiring immediate care.
  • Preterm delivery, since the placenta is unable to provide adequate nutrients and oxygen to the baby, making it necessary to deliver earlier than 40 weeks.
  • Cesarean delivery, since hypertension increases the risk of complications during labor and delivery that make the delivery unsafe for the mother and baby.

Preeclampsia can begin or worsen in the days to weeks following delivery, so close follow-up after delivery may be necessary.

Know the Warning Signs of Preeclampsia

If you experience any of the following — either during or in the weeks following your pregnancy — call your obstetrics provider’s office right away; he or she may instruct you to call an ambulance or proceed to the hospital.

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Headache that is not relieved by acetaminophen
  • Vaginal bleeding or colorectal spotting prior to delivery
  • Pain in the shoulder or upper right side of your abdomen
  • Altered mental state (not thinking or talking clearly)
  • Nausea and vomiting during the second half of pregnancy (after the typical morning sickness has ended)
  • Decreased fetal movement
  • Changes in your vision such as black spots or changes in the scope of your vision

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