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What Is Preeclampsia? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Sarah Lawson

Sarah has taught nursing courses and has a master's degree in nursing education.

Preeclampsia is a hypertensive condition that affects some pregnant women. It is often characterized by high blood pressure and a high level of protein in the urine. Learn more about preeclampsia and its causes, symptoms and treatments.

Definition

Many women have beautiful, healthy pregnancies from start to finish in the U.S. and around the world. They feel great, have no complications, and welcome their new baby into the world without difficulty. However, for some women, this is not the case. Some women have beautiful pregnancies, until one day everything changes. They have a severe headache that came out of nowhere. They become dizzy and may have visual changes. They rapidly begin to gain weight and have swelling in the feet, hands, and face. They experience excessive nausea and vomiting. This is preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy marked by hypertension and proteinuria. Preeclampsia, also known as toxemia or pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH), usually appears in the latter part of the second trimester or in the third trimester, but it can occur earlier or postpartum. Hypertension is a condition of high blood pressure, usually 140/90 and higher. Proteinuria is a condition in which the urine contains abnormally high levels of protein. Approximately 5-8% of all pregnancies are affected by preeclampsia.

Pregnant woman having blood pressure checked

If preeclampsia is left untreated, eclampsia can develop. Eclampsia is a very serious condition in which the woman experiences seizures due to hypertension. Eclampsia puts the mother and baby at great risk and can cause death to either or both.

Causes

The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown. It is believed to be the result of a placenta that does not function properly. Researchers also suspect that poor nutrition, high body fat, or insufficient blood flow to the uterus can all be possible causes. It is possible that genetics play a role as well. Preeclampsia is most often seen in women who are experiencing their first pregnancy, in pregnant teenagers, or in pregnant women over age 40. Risk factors for developing preeclampsia include the following:

  • A history of high blood pressure prior to pregnancy
  • A history of preeclampsia in previous pregnancies
  • Having a mother or sister who had preeclampsia
  • A history of obesity
  • Multiple gestation pregnancy (carrying more than one baby)
  • History of diabetes, kidney disease, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis

Symptoms

The two main symptoms used to diagnosis preeclampsia are high blood pressure (140/90 and over) and proteinuria. Additional symptoms associated with preeclampsia include:

  • Rapid weight gain (caused by body fluid and seen as swelling in face, hands, and feet)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Severe headaches
  • Changes in reflexes
  • Reduced urine output
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive nausea and vomiting
  • Visual changes (blurry vision, flashing lights, floaters)

Swelling of feet due to pregnancy

It is possible to have preeclampsia without any symptoms known to the pregnant woman. This is why it is so important for all pregnant women to have regular prenatal care, so their blood pressure and urine can be checked.

Treatment

There is no cure for preeclampsia or eclampsia. The only cure is to deliver the baby. The doctor will determine when this should be done based on the severity of symptoms and the gestation of the baby. If the preeclampsia is mild, the doctor may prescribe the following:

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