What is Preeclampsia?

KEY POINTS

  • Preeclampsia is a kind of high blood pressure some women get after the 20th week of pregnancy or after giving birth.

  • Most pregnant women with preeclampsia have healthy babies. But if not treated, it can cause serious problems, like premature birth and even death.

  • If you're at risk for preeclampsia, your provider may want you to take low-dose aspirin to help prevent it.

  • If you have blurred vision, swelling in your hands and face or severe headaches or belly pain, call your provider right away.

  • You can have preeclampsia and not know it, so go to all of your prenatal care visits, even if you’re feeling fine.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a serious blood pressure condition that can happen after the 20th week of pregnancy or after giving birth (called postpartum preeclampsia). It’s when a woman has high blood pressure and signs that some of her organs, like her kidneys and liver, may not be working normally.

Preeclampsia is a serious health problem for pregnant women around the world. It affects 2 to 8 percent of pregnancies worldwide (2 to 8 in 100). In the United States, it’s the cause of 15 percent (about 3 in 20) of premature births.

Most women with preeclampsia have healthy babies. But if it’s not treated, it can cause severe health problems for you and your baby.

Can taking low-dose aspirin help reduce your risk for preeclampsia and premature birth?

For some women, yes. If your health care provider thinks you’re at risk for preeclampsia, he may want you to take low-dose aspirin (also called baby aspirin or 81 mg aspirin) to prevent it. Talk to your provider to see if treatment with low-dose aspirin is right for you.

You can buy low-dose aspirin over-the-counter, or your provider can give you a prescription for it. If your provider wants you to take low-dose aspirin to help prevent preeclampsia, take it exactly as she tells you to. Don’t take more or take it more often than your provider says.

If you’re at high risk for preeclampsia, your provider may want you to start taking low-dose aspirin after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Are you at risk for preeclampsia?

We don’t know for sure what causes preeclampsia, but there are some risk factors that may make you more likely than other women to have it.  If you have even one risk factor for preeclampsia, tell your provider.

You're at high risk for preeclampsia if:

  • You've 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. You’re also at higher risk if you had preeclampsia along with other pregnancy complications.
  • You’re pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets or more).
  • You have high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease or an autoimmune disease like lupus or antiphospholipid syndrome.

Other risk factors for preeclampsia include:

  • You've never had a baby before, or it’s been more than 10 years since you had a baby.
  • You’re obese. Obese means being very overweight with a body mass index (also called BMI) of 30 or higher. To find out your BMI, go to www.cdc.gov/bmi.
  • You have a family history of preeclampsia.
  • You had complications in a previous pregnancy, like having a baby with low birthweight.
  • You had a fertility treatment called in vitro fertilization (also called IVF) to help you get pregnant.
  • You’re older than 35.
  • You’re African-American. African-American women are at higher risk for preeclampsia than other women. There are many reasons behind this, including social, economic and environmental factors just to name a few. Together these factors make up what are known as social determinants of health— conditions in which you’re born and grow, work, live and age that affect your health throughout your life.

Talk to your provider about your risk factors for preeclampsia.

What are the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia?

Signs and symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • Changes in vision, like 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

Many of these signs and symptoms are common discomforts of pregnancy. If you have even one sign or symptom, call your health care provider right away.

What is postpartum preeclampsia?

Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare condition. It’s when you have preeclampsia after you’ve given birth. It most often happens within 48 hours (2 days) of having a baby, but it can develop up to 6 weeks after a baby’s birth. It’s just as dangerous as preeclampsia during pregnancy and needs immediate treatment. If not treated, it can cause life-threatening problems, including death.

Signs and symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia are like those of preeclampsia. It can be hard for you to know if you have signs and symptoms after pregnancy because you’re focused on caring for your baby.

If you do have signs or symptoms, tell your provider right away.