May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month, an important observance that sheds light on a very serious health problem that affects many pregnancies in the United States and around the world. In this blog post we share all the important things you need to know about this health condition.
What is preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a health condition that happens during pregnancy or after giving birth. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, it affects at least 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies in the United States. It usually happens after the 20th week of pregnancy or up to 6 weeks after a baby’s birth. Although it’s possible to have preeclampsia and give birth to a healthy baby, there is a chance of having a preterm labor and delivery. Without treatment, preeclampsia can lead to very serious complications such as kidney, liver and brain damage, or a life-threatening condition called eclampsia, which can lead to death.
How do I know if I have preeclampsia?
Many of the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia may be confused with common discomforts of pregnancy. In fact, you can have preeclampsia and not know it. Here’s what you should look out for:
- Changes in vision, such as blurriness, flashing lights, seeing spots or being sensitive to light
- Headache that doesn't go away
- Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), vomiting or dizziness
- Pain in the upper right belly area or in the shoulder
- Sudden weight gain (2 to 5 pounds in a week)
- Swelling in the legs, hands or face
- Trouble breathing
Because preeclampsia can also develop after giving birth, it’s important to watch for these signs and symptoms after your baby is born. Postpartum preeclampsia is rare but is just as dangerous as preeclampsia during pregnancy and needs immediate treatment. It often happens within 48 hours (2 days) of having a baby, but it can develop up to 6 weeks after the baby is born. Because there are so many changes that happen after giving birth, they may be easy to miss, so if something doesn’t feel right, be sure to tell your provider right away.
Who is at risk for preeclampsia?
Although we don’t know for sure what causes preeclampsia, there are some things that may make you more likely to have it. This includes:
- Having had preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy. The earlier in pregnancy you had preeclampsia, the higher your risk is to have it again in another pregnancy.
- Being pregnant with more than one baby (twins, triplets or more).
- Having high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease or an autoimmune disease such as lupus or antiphospholipid syndrome.
- Being older than 35.
- Being affected by obesity. Having obesity means being very overweight. A person is considered to be obese if they have a body mass index (also called BMI) of 30 or higher.
If you’re at risk for preeclampsia, your provider may suggest you take low-dose aspirin. Low-dose aspirin is also called baby aspirin or 81 mg (milligrams) aspirin. Talk to your provider to see if low-dose aspirin is right for you.
Can COVID-19 increase the risk of preeclampsia?
Although more studies are needed to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on pregnancy, one recent study found that pregnant women who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 had a 76 percent greater chance of preeclampsia and eeclampsia. Another study found a link between COVID-19 infections and high blood pressure and preeclampsia.
With so much still unknown, it’s normal to have many questions and even feel worried. Be sure you find ways to cope with the additional stress and anxiety that COVID-19 has brought on.
How is preeclampsia treated?
The way preeclampsia is treated depends on how severe it is and far along you are in your pregnancy. If you have mild preeclampsia before 37 weeks:
- Your provider checks your blood pressure and urine regularly.
- Your provider may ask you to do kick counts to track how often your baby moves.
- If your condition is stable, your provider may recommend that you have your baby early. Your provider may give you medicine or break your water (amniotic sac) to make labor start. This is called inducing labor. This may be safer for you and your baby than staying pregnant.
For more information visit marchofdimes.org/preeclampsia