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Preeclampsia: A Hidden Pregnancy Danger

Katlyn Joy |20, October 2013


Preeclampsia is considered the leading cause of maternal death and infant illness and death, with at least 76,000 mothers' deaths and 500,000 babies' deaths attributed to it each year, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.

What is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and is characterized by elevated blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, approximately, 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies are affected by the condition. Should preeclampsia go undetected or untreated, a woman will suffer seizures and be diagnosed with eclampsia. According to the March of Dimes, besides death, preeclampsia can also lead to:

  • Blood clotting disorders in the mother.
  • Kidney, liver and brain damage in the mother.
  • If eclampsia develops, maternal seizures, strokes and coma can occur.
  • Low birth weight due to decreased blood flow to the placenta. This means a baby under 5 1/2 pounds.
  • Premature birth.
  • Placental abruption, where the placenta shears off the uterine wall and is noted due to vaginal bleeding

What are the Signs of Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia can sneak up on mothers and surprise doctors. There is no way to prevent the condition, making it all the more important to know the signs and get proper prenatal care where significant changes can be detected by your physician. Considered a silent killer, the main telltale symptom is high blood pressure, something a mother will not be aware of on her own.

Here are some of the signs of preeclampsia, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation:

  • Headaches especially when migraine like.
  • Elevated blood pressure. While the cut off is 140/90, it's important to notice a trend of low blood pressure in early pregnancy followed by consistently rising BP.
  • Pain in the lower back, and/or shoulder, abdominal area. The abdominal pain is under the ribs on right side.
  • Nausea and vomiting occurring suddenly in mid-pregnancy.
  • Sudden weight gain. If you gain two or more pounds in a week it may be due to damaged blood vessels allowing water to leak into and remain in your tissues.
  • Swelling. Especially of the hands and face.
  • Urine changes. If your doctor notes protein in your urine. If you notice your urine is dark and reddish like cola, you need to let your doctor know.
  • Visual symptoms include temporary loss of vision, blurred vision, auras, flashing lights, floaters, and light sensitivity. These may be attributed to central nervous system irritation or swelling in the brain.
  • Hyperreflexia. This is when your doctor taps on your knee with the rubber mallet and you overreact. You won't be aware of this symptom otherwise.

Signs of high blood pressure or pulmonary edema, also known as fluid in the lungs. These include anxiety, mental confusion, shortness of breath and racing pulse.

When to Call the Doctor or Go the ER

If you have heavy bleeding, fever, chills, nausea, vision problems, rapid weight gain and swelling especially of the face you should put in a call to the doctor. Do not wait until Monday if this is on a weekend. If you notice that you have a number of the symptoms listed, call your doctor with your concerns. It is important not to waste time as lives are at stake and it's better to err on the side of caution.

Causes and Risk Factors of Preeclampsia

It's unknown how preeclampsia happens, but according to the Mayo Clinic, there are risk factors for the condition:

  • Being overweight.
  • Having a history of preeclampsia.
  • This being a first child, or the first child in several years.
  • Being an older (over 35 years old) mother.
  • Being younger than 20.
  • Having a child with a new man than previous children.
  • Carrying multiples.
  • Diabetes, gestational or previous diagnosis.
  • History of chronic diseases such as hypertension, migraines, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus.

Preeclampsia Treatment

How preeclampsia is treated once detected depends on where you are in the pregnancy and how you and baby are faring.

According to the National Institutes of Health, if it is too soon to deliver the baby, pregnant women will be monitored closely. Their salt intake will be reduced and told to avoid dehydration. Bed rest may be prescribed — particularly side-lying. Additionally, possibly medications for hypertension may be prescribed.

If the mother is further along in her pregnancy, she may be given steroid injections to help speed up the baby's lung development, medications to control blood pressure and prevent seizures may be administered. Hospital admission may be required to monitor her and her baby more closely.

Will My Doctor Induce Labor?

If you have been diagnosed with preeclampsia, your doctor will most likely induce labor if:

  • Your baby is in distress.
  • Your diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) is 100 to 110.
  • Abnormal liver function is detected.
  • Severe belly pain occurs.
  • You have seizures or mental confusion.
  • You have fluid in your lungs.
  • Are bleeding or have a low platelet count.
  • You have HELLP syndrome.
  • You have high protein in urine is detected, low urine output or your kidneys are not functioning properly.
Katlyn Joy is a freelance writer with a Master's of Arts in Creative Writing. She is mom to seven children, and lives in Denver, Colorado with her family.

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